Category: housing

Council Fast-Tracks Plan to Legalize “Impact Fees” on New Apartments

Seattle’s list of projects that impact fees could fund includes projects that have already been funded and are nearing completion.

By Erica C. Barnett

In an unusual move, City Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen persuaded a majority of their council colleagues last week to fast-track an amendment to the city’s Comprehensive Plan that would set the stage for “transportation impact fees” on new housing—fees that are based on the premise that dense, urban living causes negative impacts on the city’s transportation system.

The Comprehensive Plan is the overarching framework for planning and development decisions in Seattle. The changes the council is considering would allow transportation impact fees, “identify deficiencies in the transportation system associated with new development,” and adopt a list of projects that could be funded through such fees.

Pedersen has said fees on new housing could allow the city to reduce the size of the Seattle Transportation Levy, which is paid for by property taxes—lowering taxes for homeowners while raising the cost of new apartments for renters.

The council voted to bypass the normal process for approving changes to the comp plan, skipping Councilmember Dan Strauss’ land use committee to send the proposal directly to the full council, with a single public hearing scheduled for the council’s 2pm meeting on November 7 (coincidentally, Election Day). The council would vote on the amendment itself two weeks later, on November 21—the deadline to push the changes through this year.

Unlike MHA, in which developers fund new affordable housing in exchange for greater housing density, impact fees treat new housing as a bad thing that must be offset by fees to offset its negative impact. This anti-urbanist assumption elides the fact that the hundreds of thousands of people moving to Seattle over the coming decades are going to have to live somewhere—and that if there isn’t enough housing in the city, people, including many who can no longer afford to live in Seattle, will be pushed out into car-dependent suburbs.

Strauss, who has already scheduled a public hearing in the land use committee for November 29, protested this departure from the council’s normal procedures, noting that the city spent years deliberating over changes to industrial zoning and a tree protection ordinance, and both still need work after passing earlier this year. In addition, Strauss noted that the city’s hearing examiner has yet to issue a ruling on an appeal related to the fee proposal, which developers say would have a significant negative environmental impact—namely, it would reduce the amount of new housing in the city.

“I believe it is important that we receive the hearing examiner’s decision and have the time needed … to understand the policy” and hold a public hearing before voting the changes through, Strauss said.

Proponents of the legislation, including Herbold and Council President Debora Juarez, have minimized its impact, calling it a minor “procedural vote” with no actual policy impacts. In reality, changing the city’s Comprehensive Plan to allow impact fees is a consequential decision that could ultimately reduce the amount of housing that gets built inside city limits.

Juarez, Herbold, and Pedersen are not running for reelection and will leave the council at the end of this year.

According to a staff analysis, impact fees could bring in between $200 million and $760 million over 10 years—similar to the Mandatory Housing Affordability program the city adopted in 2019, which allowed denser development in some areas while helping to fund new affordable housing. MHA, like impact fees, was controversial, and the council held “at least 20 committee meetings” before passing it, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted.

Unlike MHA, in which developers fund new affordable housing in exchange for greater housing density, impact fees treat new housing as a bad thing that must be offset by fees to offset its negative impact. This anti-urbanist assumption elides the fact that the hundreds of thousands of people moving to Seattle over the coming decades are going to have to live somewhere—and that if there isn’t enough housing in the city, people, including many who can no longer afford to live in Seattle, will be pushed out into car-dependent suburbs whose negative impacts are well-documented.

Advocates on both sides of the issue will now have just two opportunities to weigh in—once at the full councl meeting on November 7, and two weeks later, when the council is scheduled to take its final vote. Although Pedersen claimed last week that the commenters who showed up to oppose impact fees were just “paid lobbyists” who were “afraid of a public hearing,” Mosqueda argued that the accelerated schedule makes it less likely that ordinary members of the public will be able to weigh in on changes that could further depress housing development in the middle of a housing downturn.

Once the council adopts the changes to the Comprehensive Plan, they can begin the process of adopting the fees themselves. That process will almost certainly have to include additional comp plan changes, since the proposal the council is considering includes a list of projects that includes some that have already received funding—like the RapidRide G line on Madison Street, set to open next year.

Partnership for Zero, the Homelessness Authority’s Marquee Plan to End Homelessness Downtown, Will End After Housing 230 People

Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones speaks at a press conference about the new public-private "Partnership for Zero" Thursday

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Partnership for Zero program—a heavily hyped public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle—is ending, PubliCola has learned. About 35 “systems advocates”—formerly homeless people KCRHA hired to do outreach and case management for people living unsheltered downtown—will be laid off. Their union, PROTEC17, was informed of the decision to end the program Monday evening, and the staff were informed this morning, KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens confirmed.

“We are winding down the Partnership for Zero pilot program, and we will be applying the lessons we learned to the system as a whole,” Martens said Monday. The positive lessons, she said, included the fact that the “emergency management approach and style is effective at building cooperation” and that having a centralized access point for all private housing resources is better than requiring every individuals service provider locate housing on an ad hoc basis.

The KCRHA posted an official update on the end of the program Tuesday afternoon.

Martens said the KCRHA would be posting 11 new jobs in the areas of “housing navigation and stability and housing acquisition” internally, and that system navigators will be encouraged to apply. Many of these employees are recently homeless, and some were hired only a few months ago.

“The dissolution of this program is beyond disappointing — it is life-changing for all of the employees who’ve dedicated their careers to making a difference, and it is disruptive and unsettling to our neighbors in the unhoused community,” said Karen Estevenin, executive director of Professional and Technical Employees 17 (PROTEC17), which represents the systems advocates. “This unfortunate decision underscores the importance of fully funding and supporting direct service public programs that do not rely on continually fluctuating donors and donations.”

“One of the challenges is when people are spread out and mobile across downtown, it’s much more difficult than focusing on one defined encampment that’s in a place.” —KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens

In a joint statement to PubliCola, Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Constantine called the news “a disappointing end result” to the pilot program, “for the Authority, their workers, philanthropists, and, most importantly, people living on the street unhoused downtown.” The two executives said they will be “meeting with program leaders and the financial supporters of this effort to better understand lessons learned and how best to move forward,” adding, “This experience provides further confirmation of the need for the comprehensive review we launched of the organization’s governance structure, oversight, and accountability systems.”

Although the program used one-time funding, the KCRHA had planned to fund it with Medicaid reimbursement through a program called Foundational Community Supports, including the funds in the agency’s budget for 2025. Officials as well as experts familiar with FCS were skeptical about relying on the complex federal program to fund the downtown initiative, and a report, commissioned by the KCRHA but never released, outlined the challenges KCRHA would face if it tried to tap the funding directly. Martens acknowledged that the Medicaid funding, which former CEO Marc Dones confidently predicted would pay for 85 percent of the program by next year, “has not come to pass.”

Additionally, Martens said, the agency learned that “there are challenges in having an administrative agency run direct service” instead of contracting nonprofit partners to do the work, the standard approach in King County. With Partnership for Zero, the KCRHA was essentially running a parallel service system that duplicated, and in some ways competed with, the existing system of nonprofit providers that already do similar work; REACH, for example, lost a number of skilled outreach workers to better-paying positions as systems advocates.

Another lesson, Martens said, was that focusing on a large geographic area like downtown Seattle was less effective than working to house people in specific, identifiable encampments. “One of the challenges is when people are spread out and mobile across downtown, it’s much more difficult than focusing on one defined encampment that’s in a place,” Martens said. This past summer, the KCRHA divided the Partnership for Zero area into five discrete “zones” in an effort to break down the downtown region into smaller sub-areas, but this move did not solve for the fact that people can, and do, move around.

Other challenges, Martens said, “involve coordination across systems—when you’re looking at the public health system and the behavioral health system,” for example, “we need full systems coordination, not just project by project.”

As part of Partnership for Zero, the KCRHA established a “Housing Command Center,” using technical assistance from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, to meet daily and coordinate housing for individual clients. The KCRHA referred to the HCC as an “incident command center” that would respond to downtown homelessness the same way local emergency operations centers respond to major events like protests and extreme weather. The HCC stopped meeting regularly earlier this year, but the agency will continue to deploy the approach for emergencies and “system-wide challenges” that require coordination across many different partners, Martens said.

Martens said the authority is now working to narrow its focus, under interim CEO Helen Howell, to “focus on system administration” and spending money on existing contracts more effectively—for example, by making sure providers get paid on time, an issue that came up earlier this year and still has not been completely resolved.

Launched with a high-profile press event in 2022, the program never produced the kind of results the agency and its then-director Dones promised. Under the original five-phase plan, the agency was supposed to have reduced the number of people living unsheltered downtown to “functional zero” in “as little as 12 months”; in reality, since the program launched 19 months ago, it has housed just 230 people, from a “by-name list” of people living downtown that totaled nearly 1,000. Many of those 230 are using temporary vouchers that will expire after their initial one-year lease.

The end of Partnership for Zero coincides with the pending release of three separate audits into the program—one federal, one state, and one by King County—which reportedly reveal significant dysfunction within the program and the agency as a whole. KCRHA director Helen Howell has scheduled meetings with members of the agency’s boards to discuss the audit results later this week.

We Are In, the organization that coordinated the private funding for Partnership for Zero, told PubliCola in a statement that the program “successfully moved more than 230 individuals in over 210 households living unsheltered into permanent housing, developed a comprehensive data infrastructure for identifying individuals experiencing homelessness and their unique needs, and built trusting relationships with unhoused neighbors, setting them on the path toward stable housing.”

We Are In, the statement continued, is “committed to ensuring that the learning from Partnership for Zero is applied to create sustainable systems change and to continue working with government partners to design and implement the next phase of this critical work.”

We Are In did not identify what “the next phase” would look like, nor did it identify what the group had learned, specifically, while the program was in effect.

When the project launched, its funders said it would serve as an example of what the agency could accomplish by being innovative and experimental in its approach, starting in downtown Seattle, where many of the city’s largest businesses are located.

By building a “by-name list” focused on a certain geographic area, hiring people with lived experience to do most of the work typically done by established nonprofits, and placing most people in regular, market-rate housing through incentives and agreements with private landlords, the new approach would “build infrastructure and add capacity to the system in order to deliver comprehensive services and housing or shelter for those experiencing unsheltered homelessness in target areas, helping to revitalize our communities and providing all residents an opportunity to thrive,” according to We Are In’s 2022 Partnership for Zero press release.

Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the successes Partnership for Zero managed to achieve illustrate the need for more resources to help people get and remain housed; the collective contribution from private groups and companies worked out to about $11 million. “While it was ill-conceived for the RHA … to attempt to create its own service provider team, we and others welcomed additional resources and focus to walk with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness to help them secure homes quickly,” Eisinger said. “That’s what our whole system desperately needs: more housing resources, more focused and urgent attention to get people housed.”

The fact that Partnership for Zero was an experimental pilot that did not include sustained resources, Eisinger added, “reveals weaknesses of the philanthropic model as a driver of service delivery. We need to focus on getting the significant and sustained additional public dollars that every honest analysis demonstrates is necessary. Period.”

Three of the four original co-directors of the program told PubliCola they received little guidance from the agency about how to stand up the Partnership for Zero program and were under tremendous pressure to hire people quickly and start collecting a list of names right away. “There was this big push to just hire people based on having lived experience, and not requiring any sort of formal work experience or even work history at all,” said Dawn Shepard, a former (and now current) staffer for the outreach agency REACH who was featured prominently in media reports touting the KCRHA’s approach to downtown homelessness.

“They said, ‘We’re just going to train you from the ground up,’ and we didn’t have the capacity for that. We’re trying to stand up a new program and we’re making commitments that there’s no way in hell we’re going to be able to meet.” The “philosophy” KCRHA promoted, Shepard said,  “was ‘overpromise and underdeliver,’ and at REACH, “it’s the opposite. You never are supposed to be further damaging to clients by promising them stuff you can’t provide.”

PubliCola spoke with Shepard and two other former co-directors for a planned story we planned to write about the system navigators earlier this year.

Former KCRHA CEO Marc Dones and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell

According to one of those former co-directors, Elijah Wood, he was hired after just one interview, a process the agency replicated when hiring the system advocates.  “We had virtually no onboarding and were told, ‘You need to have the entire workforce by May, which gave us two months to hire 36 people,” Wood said.

“The biggest red flag, from the beginning, was the amount of work that we were expected stand up with very little support,” a third former co-director, Joe Conniff, said. “We were very disenfranchised as directors.” One of the results of this “chaotic” rush, the former co-directors noted, was the new system advocates, many of them recently out of homelessness or trying to maintain their sobriety, were thrust into risky or traumatic situations, including places where people were actively using and dealing drugs, without adequate training on safety and strategies to protect their own mental health.

PubliCola was the first to report on the Partnership for Zero in February 2022, when the system advocates were known as “peer navigators” and the plan was to have each navigator follow a client “longitudinally” through the entire housing process, from living on the street to signing a lease. At the time, philanthropic donors and business leaders were enthusiastic about the idea, which would take some of the work already being done by many nonprofit agencies and hand it to KCRHA employees whose primary qualification was prior experience being homeless.

On Tuesday, the Downtown Seattle Association sent PubliCola a statement calling Partnership for Zero “the right approach that was executed in all the wrong ways. The effort lacked sound management, oversight and focus.

“If the KCRHA wants to be recognized as the leading entity on the region’s response to homelessness, it must effectively execute a strategy to reduce homelessness in downtown Seattle, the area of the region with the highest concentration of individuals experiencing homelessness,” the DSA statement continued. “It’s unacceptable for the region’s homelessness response agency and local government to have no plan for the area with the most significant homelessness crisis. If the KCRHA isn’t up to the task, the city and county should assume responsibility and immediately and stand up a plan for downtown Seattle.”

When Partnership for Zero launched in 2022, DSA director Jon Scholes said the program “takes [the response to homelessness downtown] to a different scale, and brings in the housing resources that [existing] outreach teams, for the most part, haven’t had, or have had a limited supply of.”

But those existing outreach agencies expressed skepticism about the plan from the start, noting that housing people experiencing chronic street homelessness requires more than a personal history of homelessness (which, many leaders noted, most of their employees have) but practical experience doing the complex, often grueling work of case management and housing placement, which requires navigating many byzantine systems.

Additionally, providers pointed out, the new KCRHA staff would make significantly more as government employees than nonprofit agencies are able to pay, producing a brain drain from an industry that already struggles to retain qualified staff.

The Partnership for Zero program evolved significantly over time, once it became increasingly clear that the original plan to have one person navigate a group of clients through every aspect of the homelessness and housing system was unrealistic. The program was first revamped to allow people to specialize in certain parts of the housing process—making sure people made it to court hearings, for example, or working with landlords to convince them that someone will be a responsible tenant.

According to former co-director Conniff, it was clear from the beginning that they were being asked to do too much. “We were having to wear all these hats, while simultaneously having to deal with an oppressive structure and a system that felt very biased.”

More recently, the system advocates placed more than 120 clients in hotels run by the Lived Experience Coalition, which ran out of money for the hotels back in April, forcing the state to step in and help the KCRHA move people elsewhere.

System advocates were also required, over time, to fill a number of emerging needs that weren’t directly related to its original purpose. Instead of doing outreach broadly, for instance, system advocates focused on specific encampments within the downtown “catchment” area that raised concerns and objections from nearby residents and businesses, a process that sometimes required the team to displace large groups of people they had never worked with before, Wood said. Just before Thanksgiving, for example, the Housing Command Center directed his team to “resolve” an encampment along Alaskan Way that was the source of a number of complaints, despite the fact that they had never done outreach to the site.

Wood, who went on administrative leave in late 2022 and was subsequently fired, said he was frustrated by the emphasis on resolving high-profile encampments instead of everyone experiencing homelessness downtown. “There was no strategy for people who were outside of encampments, so we were cleaning up encampments and doing nothing for the people who [were] just sleeping outside,” Wood said.

KCRHA is funded primarily by the city of Seattle and King County. In their joint statement, Executive Constantine and Mayor Harrell said they were committed to helping KCRHA succeed. “We need an effective regional approach to make sustainable, permanent progress addressing homelessness,” they said. “We believe for that approach to be successful, KCRHA must be a working part of the solution.”

Council Delays Pedersen Plan to Impose New “Impact” Fees on New Apartments

Rendering for a planned building on South Jackson St. that its developer said would not have been feasible with millions of dollars in new transportation impact fees.

By Erica C. Barnett

Two city council members who have argued for years that developers who build new housing should pay large fees to compensate for their impact on the city’s transportation system may end their terms without seeing their vision realized.

Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Lisa Herbold, who are both leaving the council at the end of this year, have proposed a change to the city’s Comprehensive Plan—the document that guides development in the city—that would dictate how transportation impact fees will be determined in the future and lay out a list of specific projects they will fund. Pedersen, who is leading the charge, wanted to hold the one required public hearing for the change last week, which would queue the changes up for later this month, but land use committee chair Dan Strauss canceled the hearing, saying last week that he wanted to wait for a ruling on a legal challenge related to the fees.

The changes to the comp plan are the second of three necessary steps required to impose the fees; the third and final step would be adopting legislation to implement the fees laid out in the plan.

Pedersen has said fees for new housing could offset the property taxes that pay for the Seattle Transportation Plan, reducing property taxes for homeowners while raising the cost of new apartments. Both property taxes and the cost to build new units ultimately get passed on to renters, but the fees would typically cost far more up front than the annual property taxes for a building, according to both developers’ testimony and PubliCola’s own comparison of actual property taxes for new developments to the fees they would pay under a fee schedule, introduced as part of the city’s defense to the developers’ challenge, which represents the maximum the city could charge for each land use type. The legislation does not include a specific fee schedule.

For example, the owners of a brand-new, 171-unit luxury apartment building called the Ballard Yards will pay about $580,000 in property taxes this year. The impact fee for that same development under the proposed fee scheme, including apartments and the first-floor retail space, would be about $2.2 million, almost four times as much. For a smaller building like the Crane, a five-year-old, 39-unit complex in Interbay, the impact fee would add $495,000 to the cost of development, compared to a little more than $100,000 in annual property taxes.

One reason Pedersen’s proposal would cost developers (and therefore renters) so much more money overall is that the fees are calculated by unit, not development—so that someone building a single-family would pay one fee, while a company building a 100-unit building would pay a separate fee for every unit.

“I’ve tracked this over the years, and every time I dig into it I leave with as many questions as I have answered,” Strauss told PubliCola. For example: “What is the potential impact on MHA? How do we marry it with our budget this year? Are these projects still the right projects?”

During last week’s land use committee meeting, public comment over the proposal was extremely divided, Strauss noted. “To see the divided room—it told me that waiting until the [Seattle] hearing examiner makes their final decision before having that official public hearing was the right choice.”

Earlier this year, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development determined that the fees would have no significant impact on the environment under the State Environmental Policy Act, prompting a group of developers and housing advocates to file an appeal; the city’s hearing examiner held the final hearing on that appeal next week, and will announce his decision sometime in the coming weeks.

In their appeal, the developers and advocates, organized as the Seattle Mobility Coalition, said the new fees would “raise the cost of development in Seattle across the board, amounting to a tax on new housing, which will reduce housing production, increase housing costs and undermine the goals of the Mandatory Housing Affordability (“MHA”) program,” which allowed more density in certain areas in exchange for new affordable housing.

For example, Mill Creek managing director for development Meredith Holzemer said in a declaration, a 397-unit apartment complex the company is planning on South Jackson Street would cost them several million dollars in impact fees over and above the $10 million they will already pay into MHA; the extra fees, Holzemer said, “will render the project economically infeasible and it will not be constructed.”

Although the proposal would exempt housing built specifically for low-income people, that doesn’t address the situation that’s driving up the cost of housing for everyone else: Wealthy people, including newcomers who move here for high-paying tech jobs, are “bidding up” existing units that would otherwise be affordable to middle-income people, pushing up the cost of housing at every level of the market.

Basing future road usage on past behavior is always a stretch, even without a pandemic that completely upended commute patterns and reduced the amount people are driving at rush hour, possibly for the long term. To name just one very recent (and very consequential) example, the state estimated that around 130,000 people would use the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement by 2030, and used that estimate to justify building an $18 million bypass tunnel and the surface-level waterfront highway that is now under construction.

Pedersen and Herbold were quick to point out that changing the city’s Comprehensive Plan is just a precursor to adopting impact fees—one Herbold called a “small procedural step” that “is not complex” at all. In fact, amending the comp plan is a consequential process that the council sets aside time for once a year, usually rejecting a majority of the proposed amendments that come before them. Setting up a plan and project list in the city’s primary planning document isn’t some mere gesture, but a major first step toward adopting the fees themselves.

One reason Pedersen’s proposal would cost developers (and therefore renters) so much more money overall is that the fees are calculated by unit, not development—so that someone building a single-family would pay one fee, while a company building a 100-unit building would pay a separate fee for every unit. The fee for each new apartment would be a few thousand dollars less than for single-family houses or duplex units, but the overall cost would be much higher; developers would also be encouraged to stay away from single-family areas by discounts for building in already-dense urban villages. The proposed fee structure could have the effect of keeping the city’s suburban-style land use patterns the same while placing another wall around historic single-family zones—a longtime goal for Pedersen.

How could someone living in an apartment in a dense area with easy access to transit service “cost” nearly as much, in terms of negative impacts on the city’s transportation system, as someone building a new house in one of Seattle’s car-centric suburban-style neighborhoods? According to the Pedersen-Herbold amendment—which, if adopted, would become a permanent part of the city’s overarching growth strategy—the costs are based on a couple of factors.

The first is “Seattle’s expected growth in person trips over the next 12 years”—that is, how many “trips” Seattle residents will take using the overall transportation system. This measurement of “person trips” comes partly from vehicle trip estimates from the Institute of Transportation Engineers, which uses its own “trip generation manual” to estimate the number of people using the entire transportation system during the evening rush hour, and the Puget Sound Regional Council, which estimates population growth and surveys commuters on how they get around. Using these two tools, the city estimates there will be about 85,000 new rush hour trips every day by 2024, most of them by car.

Perhaps you are sensing one issue with these estimates: Basing future road usage on past behavior is always a stretch, even without a pandemic that completely upended commute patterns and reduced the amount people are driving at rush hour, possibly for the long term. To name just one very recent (and very consequential) example, the state estimated that around 130,000 people would use the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement by 2030, and used that estimate to justify building an $18 million bypass tunnel and the surface-level waterfront highway that is now under construction. When the drivers didn’t arrive—prior to the pandemic, about 53,000 people drove through the tunnel daily, a number that plummeted to 40,000 in 2020—the state’s plan to use tolls to help pay for the tunnel fell apart.

It’s worth noting that the ITE’s predictions have come under significant scrutiny because they overestimate the traffic generated by new development—and especially new apartment buildings—substantially. One comprehensive study found that the ITE overestimated the trips generated by new development, on average, by 55 percent; for new multifamily buildings, the ITE overestimated trips by 108 percent. The city, in other words, could be assuming twice as much “impact” from new apartments, simply in terms of how many new trips they generate, as they have in reality.

Of course, not all trips are created equal—a solo driver has more impact than a single person riding a bus or biking to work, for example. The city’s plan attempts to address this by measuring how much physical space people using different transportation modes take up on the road. A driver, by this measure, takes up 180 square feet of space, whereas a person biking to work takes up 22.5 square feet, so the driver has about 8 times as much impact on the overall transportation system as someone who walks to work.

It’s easy to see why this measure is somewhat silly. It’s obvious that someone driving a 6,000-pound, gas-guzzling Land Rover—or a 8,500-pound electric Rivian!—contributes far more to the state of Seattle’s roads (and traffic) than a cyclist, whose space needs and physical impact are negligible in the first case and basically nonexistent in the second. (Also, bike lanes typically use space that would otherwise be used by heavier, more impactful cars—so wouldn’t they have a positive impact?) If eight cyclists are the equivalent of one vehicle, then it makes sense to assume an apartment building where almost everyone walks or rides a bike has the same impact as dozens of new lawn-locked single-family houses with two or three vehicles in the driveway.

And, of course, these estimates all assume that every new person has only a negative impact on the transportation system and the environment—ignoring the many positive impacts of living in the city rather than commuting into Seattle by car from a highway-dependent suburb.

Pedersen and Herbold have tried to rush their impact fee proposal through while they’re still on the council—an acknowledgement, perhaps, that this isn’t a priority for other elected officials. None of the people running for open council seats have identified impact fees as a campaign issue, and it’s possible, perhaps likely, that if the proposal doesn’t go forward this year, it will die from lack of interest.

But there are some pretty significant reasons not to push forward with a fee proposal before the end of the year. First of all, it’s pretty clear that the proposal is a bit half-baked. The list of projects the fee would help fund was developed by then-councilmember Mike O’Brien back in 2018, and it’s showing its age. The list includes some projects that have already been fully funded—the bus-rapid transit project on Madison Street, for example—and others that may now be outdated or lower-priority. In theory, the city could enshrine the project list in its comprehensive plan and then amend it list later, but why adopt a major change to the city’s growth plan without a public discussion of the projects a new impact fee would fund?

It’s debatable, for example, whether renters who live in a new building on Capitol Hill ought to be paying directly for improvements for freight trucks driving on East Marginal Way, which is one of many road improvements on the list of projects ostensibly impacted by new housing. And, as Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted last week, it’s unclear whether the project list represents an equitable distribution of improvements around the city, relative to the equity impacts of adding to the cost of housing in areas that may desperately need it.

“I want to make sure that… we look closely at whether or not there is an a disproportionate impact on equity or [Race and Social Justice Initiative issues that our city closely monitors” before adopting impact fees, said Mosqueda, who submitted a list of about a dozen questions about the proposal to the council’s central staff. “I understand the comments that were made” by Pedersen and Herbold “about how [outreach for this proposal includes] every stakeholder that has informed the pedestrian, bike, and transit plans, but that does not equal to me an RSJI equity analysis for this specific proposal.”

Indeed, Pedersen has waved aside concerns about outreach and engagement on his fee proposal by repeatedly pulling up a pie chart, based on undisclosed data, showing that 75 percent of people his office surveyed supported the proposal. Here it is:

Convincing, right?

Beyond the dubious project list, Pedersen and Herbold are trying to move the new fees forward at a pace they would never have allowed a proposal like MHA, which allowed slightly more density in exchange for new fees to fund affordable housing. Herbold, in fact, pushed for more process and deliberation before passing MHA (which she ultimately supported), and Pedersen made opposition to the program a centerpiece of his campaign for office, later hiring a homeowner activist who repeatedly sued the city to stop MHA as his legislative assistant. MHA went through years of deliberation before it even came before the council, followed by months of meetings and extensive outreach to every neighborhood in the city.

In contrast, Pedersen has made it clear he hoped to pass the comprehensive plan amendment, setting up a process to quickly pass impact fees, in the course of a couple of weeks. Now that that won’t happen, it will be up to the council to decide whether to consider the plan before he and Herbold leave. If the hearing examiner comes back with a ruling quickly, and sides with the city, Pedersen will have to provide 30 days’ notice of a new public hearing, which would push the proposal well into the period when the council will be debating the 2024 budget.

If the council decides it’s too busy with the budget to add changing the comprehensive plan to their schedule, it would push the debate into next year, when there’s a distinct possibility that no one will be motivated to bring it up again. Currently, housing construction is on a downward trajectory, thanks in no small part to the city’s slow permitting process, with just 441 master use permits last year compared to 975 in 2015.

Recently, the Puget Sound Business Journal announced that developer Barrientos Ryan backed out of plans to build a 300-unit “workforce housing” development along 15th Ave. W in Interbay, citing new requirements from the city that added more than $1 million in unanticipated costs. Instead of housing, the property will now be home to 20 new pickleball courts.

The Five-Year Plan for Homelessness Was Based Largely on 180 Interviews. Experts Say They Were Deeply Flawed.

Source: KCRHA Five-Year Plan

By Erica C. Barnett

In 2022, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority did away with the longstanding, but flawed, practice of physically counting people experiencing homelessness on a single night. By replacing the physical “point in time” count with a statistical model based on Department of Commerce Data, combined with interviews with people recruited through the broad-ranging social networks that exist among unsheltered people, the KCRHA hoped to produce a more accurate picture of homelessness in King County.

The interviews, which contributed to the KCRHA’s estimate of more than 53,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County, also served a second, arguably more impactful, purpose: They formed the basis for an overarching plan that will guide the authority’s use of public dollars for the next five years. The Five-Year Plan, which includes recommendations for specific temporary housing types (and initially came with a $12 billion price tag), was based largely on 180 of these interviews, which researchers used to “identify specific temporary and permanent housing models directly from the voices of people living unsheltered, interpreted in partnership with people with lived experience,” according to the final five-year plan.

PubliCola has obtained the transcripts of more than 80 of these interviews, which took place in the early spring of 2022, through a records request. The interviews range from terse questions and answer sessions to lengthy, discursive conversations in which interviewers abandon the Q&A format to offer opinions, give advice, and tell people they can help them access services—something qualitative researchers are generally cautioned not to do. We also consulted two experts on qualitative research to learn more about how interviews like the ones KCRHA oversaw can best be used, and to learn some best practices for the kind of evaluation the KCRHA was attempting to do.

Additionally, PubliCola talked to an experienced data analyst at the KCRHA, who explained how the project worked. Initially, the interviews (which former KCRHA CEO Marc Dones called “oral histories”) were the sole focus of the research project, which the KCRHA titled “Understanding Unsheltered Homelessness.” Later on, after the Department of Housing and Urban Development rejected the KCRHA’s request to skip the point-in-time count altogether, Dones decided to “combine efforts between doing the Point in Time Count and this qualitative data collection,” Owen Kajfasz, the KCRHA’s acting chief community officer, said. “So we really merged two projects into one data collection.”

Some of the earliest interviews, which took place in South King County, didn’t include the proper consent forms or had transcripts that couldn’t be traced back to interview subjects. And overall, the interviews ended up oversampling straight white men, and undersampling women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, forcing researchers to go back and add some incomplete interviews to the pool to correct the imbalance.

To conduct the interviews, KCRHA recruited members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group that advocates for the inclusion of people with personal experience being homeless in policy and decision-making processes. (KCRHA staff also conducted some of the interviews.) Most interviewers received a two-part training led by Dones, who served as the “primary investigator,” or lead researcher, on the project. Those who couldn’t make the training or came on board later were instructed to read the training documents, which included a list of 31 questions, before starting work.

LEC members also held all three seats on the advisory board that oversaw the project, and later made up a majority of the team that “coded” the interviews in order to translate them into a set of recommendations for the five-year plan. As we’ve reported, the KCRHA has recently tried to distance itself from the LEC, but at the time—early 2022—the group was deeply integrated into the agency’s operations.

Although the researchers conducted more than 500 interviews, they ended up using just 180 transcripts. Some of the earliest interviews, which took place in South King County, didn’t include the proper consent forms or had transcripts that couldn’t be traced back to interview subjects. Overall, the interviews ended up oversampling straight white men, and undersampling women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, forcing researchers to go back and add some incomplete interviews to the pool to correct the imbalance—overrepresenting marginalized groups because they are the least served by the current shelter and service system..

“This wasn’t a perfect process,” Kajfasz acknowledged. “We did have more of those [interviews] that we couldn’t use than I was anticipating.”

Once the interviews were complete, a group of LEC members and KCRHA staff, aided by technical assistance from a Washington, D.C.-based firm called the Cloudburst Group, read transcripts of the interviews and “coded” them to correspond with different shelter and housing types, using the codes “to identify specific temporary and permanent housing models directly from the voices of people living unsheltered, interpreted in partnership with people with lived experience,” according to the Five-Year Plan. Although the final plan no longer includes specific dollar figure or specific numeric recommendations (eliminating, for example, a chart that suggested building no new tiny house villages ), it still represents a proposal that would, if implemented, reverse many longstanding policies and invest heavily in new approaches, like many more permanent parking spaces for people living in RVs and cars across the city.

The interview transcripts show many interviewers engaged in patient, compassionate attempts to elicit clear responses from people who were often discursive, rambling, and hard to follow. Interviewers from the Lived Experience Coalition used their own experiences to guide conversations and make their interview subjects comfortable—a key reason for including people with lived experience in data collection.

In one such conversation, the interviewer expresses concern and empathy when the person they’re talking to describes a series of traumatic situations, while still keeping the overall conversation on track. “I’m sorry you experienced that in such a tragic way. Thank you for just being vulnerable and open and sharing that because it’ll give me a glimpse of who you are and what you’ve been through,” the interviewer says, then moves on to the next question.

Researchers who use qualitative methods say it’s important to allow the conversation to flow and to use the questions as a guide rather than reading them word by word.

“In a qualitative interview, so much depends on the amount of trust and empathy that the interviewer can show,” said New York University School of Social Work professor Dr. Deborah Padgett, an expert on qualitative research who has written several books on the subject. “If you’re there in a trusting way, and you’re there as a researcher as opposed to a case worker or outreach worker or more official person, it gives you some legitimacy.”

Dr. Tyler Kincaid, a research assistant professor at Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of New Mexico who has led qualitative research about people experiencing homelessness, said qualitative interviews can’t be scripted to the extent that an ordinary survey can. “There’s an art to making the participant comfortable enough to respond, to keep the conversation going,” Kincaid said, and going “off script” is just  part of the process. “If you have, say, 10 semi-structured questions, hopefully there’s followup questions and side questions and things within those ten standard questions on a piece of paper to help to bring out more information,” Kincaid said.

But the transcripts also revealed troubling practices. In the transcripts, interviewers often cut people off, talk at length about themselves, or offer unsolicited advice. Several times, interviewers suggest they or someone else at the interview site can directly connect people with services, such as housing vouchers or a workaround for King County’s hated 211 system, or jump in with answers before the person has had time to respond.

The experts we spoke to said it’s important for researchers not to involve themselves in people’s lives or promise things they can’t deliver. Kajfasz said researchers were told that the point of the research was data collection, not problem-solving, but “folks with lived experience, when they know they have a solution for somebody, they offer it.” Some interview locations had housing navigators or other services on site, Kajfasz added.

In one transcript, an interviewer offers their opinion about the man’s substance use, saying that with drugs, “when you wake up in the morning, you hate yourself.” “I don’t ever hate myself,” the man retorts. After a tangent about the concerns police have raised about encampment fires, the second interviewer tells the man he should join the military. “You can still do it. You’re young enough. You understand?”

In many cases, interviewers suggested answers to their own questions before people had a chance to speak. In one representative transcript, an interviewer repeatedly appears to cut their subject, a Native American man, off—suggesting, for example, that the reason the man is homeless is because he “prefer[s] to be in the woods” and doesn’t “want to be acclimated in society.” Although the man says “yeah” in response to both those statements, he objects when the interviewer continues, “You don’t want an apartment.” “Well, I do eventually,” he says.

Later in the transcript, a second interviewer offers their opinion about the man’s substance use, calling it “impressive” that “it’s just Everclear now” and adding, “you’ll wean yourself off that soon enough,” prompting the man to say he isn’t so sure. With drugs, the second interviewer continues, “when you wake up in the morning, you hate yourself.” “I don’t ever hate myself,” the man retorts. After a tangent about the concerns police have raised about encampment fires, the second interviewer tells the man he should join the military. “You can still do it. You’re young enough. You understand?”

In another transcript, the interviewer suggests that their subject, a Latino man who appears to struggle with English, find work as a day laborer—a stereotypical job for Spanish-speaking immigrants. None of the interviews PubliCola reviewed were conducted in a language other than English; Kajfasz said the KCRHA offered “language services,” but that “the majority of folks, even if English was not their first language, were choosing English.”

Padgett says that while good qualitative research requires an interviewer to be patient, “take a lot of time,” and build trust and empathy, interviewers should never weigh in with their own opinions or advice.  “If you’re giving opinions about what they’re saying, you’re taking up valuable space in the conversation—and they may not want that level of pity,” Padgett said. “When I’m training people, the idea is to be empathic. In the moment, you might say, ‘I’m really sorry that happened to you,’ but [you shouldn’t] go down the rabbit hole of ‘tell me more about your trauma.'”

In an interview that appeared to cross this line, an interviewer jumped in when the man he was interviewing, whose race is not identified in the transcript, said he was probably homeless because he’d been in the foster care and prison systems. “Now you know that’s not true,” the interviewer said. The conversation continued:

Interviewer: You can’t tell me that, because you’re here for a reason. You got kids. We went through the pandemic. You got sick two times, you just said. Hell to the no, ain’t nobody in their life ever in my face will ever say that. Not while I’m standing there. I’m sorry. That just hurt. That just touched me.

Subject: No, I, I—

Interviewer: Don’t ever say that shit again to me.

Subject: My apologies. I will not say that again.

Speaker 2: To anybody, because I want you to know, that’s something that’s instilled in you and that you’re going to instill every person that come through your life, especially your children. Because my kids, they already know like I’m their ride or die. They tell people, you don’t know my mama when they tell them, oh you know how your mom- No. You don’t know my mom. So, it’s a different generation. When we got to teach that generation, there is something to live for. You’re not here for nothing. You what I’m saying? I don’t know where we went off of. Let’s see. Where did you go to school?

Padgett, who looked over the interview questions before we spoke, said the questions themselves were “pretty good, but it’s qualitative, so what’s good on paper only comes out as good if the interviewer does it well so there’s a lot more onus put on the interviewer” to keep things on track. The KCRHA did not provide its training materials, but Padgett said she usually has trainees do mock interviews, then supervises them and provides feedback on their methods throughout a project so they can adjust and improve.

In addition to asking leading questions and interrupting, a number of transcripts include interviewers skipping past questions, making assumptions about people’s gender identity or sexual orientation, and speaking excessively about themselves. In one transcript, an interviewer provides a detailed roster of their own family members’ birthdays; in another, the interviewer tries to recruit the person they’re interviewing to join the Lived Experience Coalition and the KCRHA’s Vehicle Residency Policy Group.

“It’s not about the interviewer,” Padgett said. “You should think of yourself as wearing a hat that says ‘researcher’ on it, and if you take that hat off and become a comrade of lived experience, then you’re losing what qualitative [research] does best, which is having some distance but also empathy. It’s a juggling act.”

“You really don’t want to make some sort of big, generalized governmental or programmatic decisions just based off qualitative research.” —Dr. Tyler Kincaid, University of New Mexico

Once the interviews were complete, another team of researchers, which included several members of the LEC, translated them into housing types, using specific keywords and concepts that people brought up during their conversations to create a roster of shelter types that might be appropriate. People who are using drugs but want to get sober might end up in a box titled “recovery housing,” while those with medical problems might end up in another box labeled “medical respite.” Many of the 180 interviews were with people living in their vehicles or RVs, who often ended up in separate boxes for safe parking and RV safe lots.

“It wasn’t directly, ‘hey, I need medical respite,’ so these people get medical respite, or ‘hey, I need RV parking,’ so this person gets RV parking. It was looking at all of these types of challenges folks are facing,” Kajfasz said. “And for some of those, we’re having to take pieces of information across the interview.” People who were employed but couldn’t afford rent, for example, suggested a need for more housing with supported employment services, while people struggling to stay sober suggested a need for sober housing.

At a glance, some of these solutions can seem overly determinative—some people who want to quit drinking or using other drugs might do better living independently than moving into group recovery housing, for example. Others, like RV parking lots, are widely viewed as short-term solutions, not permanent homes. Although these may seem like minor issues—shouldn’t people trying to avoid drugs and alcohol jump at an opportunity for a room in sober living, even if they would prefer a private apartment?—they translate into real policy choices, and ultimately into real money.

The initial version of the Five-Year Plan called for nearly 4,000 medical respite beds ($2.7 billion over five years); 2,570 units of recovery housing ($1.8 billion); and nearly 5,000 permanent parking spots for passenger vehicles and RVs ($192 million). The specific numbers and dollar figures may have been excised from the final plan, but the mix of shelter, or “temporary housing,” types—based on an “analysis of PIT interviews and input of the Lived Experience Commission advisory group,” according to an internal memo—remains the same, so it seems important to get it right.

“You really don’t want to make some sort of big, generalized governmental or programmatic decisions just based off qualitative research,” Kincaid, from the University of New Mexico, said. For example, he said, it would “so difficult to [use] any sort of qualitative research” as the basis for investing in one type of shelter over another, unless people consistently identified a specific type of shelter they wanted.

Padgett, from NYU, said she believes strongly that “well-done, rigorous qualitative research can play a strong and scientifically valid role, but it’s all in how you handle the information so that you’re not coming to conclusions with no basis in the data.”

In a memo from September 2022, consultants from the Cloudburst Group summarized some of the lessons the LEC and KCRHA learned from the Understanding Unsheltered Homelessness project. Among their conclusions: If the KCRHA does another series of interviews in the future, researchers need to identify the intent of the project before starting interviews, and trainers should emphasize the need to ask questions consistently, “as well as allowing participants to speak and not be interrupted.”

The way the researchers recruited participants—by identifying an initial “wave” of subjects who recruited new people through their social networks—was flawed and contributed to an interview pool that was disproportionately made up of straight, white men.

Finally, the memo noted, it was hard to interpret some interviews because they included multiple people (interviewers as well as people who approached and started talking during interviews; in the future, the memo says, the protocol for interviews “should establish that these are individual interviews.”

Kajfasz said that without Dones’ “significant expertise” in the area of qualitative research, the KCRHA isn’t planning to do an interview project of similar size and scope any time in the near future. Nor will in-person interviews form the basis for the next point-in-time count, which the KCRHA must conduct next year. The KCRHA is “currently conferring with HUD about what the next PIT count” will involve, Kajfasz said, but it probably will never look like last year’s count again. “Never do I ever want to do the point-in-time count and large-scale qualitative interviewing together,” Kajfasz said.

Unreleased Report Highlights Funding Challenges for Program Aimed at Ending Homelessness Downtown

Tent removal in progress on a recent morning at Third and James in downtown Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

A report commissioned by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, but never publicly released, highlights some of the challenges the regional agency will face as it attempts to use federal Medicaid funding to pay for Partnership for Zero, a marquee program that aims to eliminate homelessness in downtown Seattle by connecting people directly with housing.

The report, from the nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing, also lays out a potential road map for navigating the Medicaid reimbursement process, which is so byzantine that many King County providers have avoided using the program.

Currently, homeless service providers can seek funding through a Medicaid-based program called Foundational Community Supports, which provides benefits and services for people experiencing homelessness who are eligible for Medicaid and have chronic health conditions. The program, which has been around since 2018, treats homelessness as a health care issue and housing as a form of health care—a meaningful step that many advocates have applauded.

“FCS is a really unique revenue source, because it’s not a short-term grant or contract—it really is based on a person’s health and will stay with them as long as they need these services,” said Debbie Thiele, CSH’s western managing director. “It’s been a major breakthrough to have the health care system seeing supportive housing services as a part of health.”

But establishing clients’ eligibility for the program and securing payment for ongoing services has been a daunting and sometimes money-losing challenge for service providers, who often have to hire specialized administrative staff and train case managers to meticulously document encounters with clients. In conversations with PubliCola earlier this year, providers explained how challenging it can be to translate notes by front-line case managers into billable Medicaid hours; a case worker who isn’t fully trained and dogged in their efforts to enroll clients and “constantly generate [billable] service contacts” can cost an agency significantly more than they bring in, one provider said.

Back in April, Dones said the KCRHA was about to start billing some services to Medicaid in a series of experimental “dry runs” that will “give us ample time to correct anything that is going wrong” before transitioning Partnership for Zero into a mostly Medicaid-funded program next year. Those dry runs haven’t happened, and the reasons for the delay remain somewhat opaque.

“Once providers are up and running with Medicaid FCS, it is projected to cover gaps with increase revenue, but to get to that point, providers report their start-up costs to be far more than they can afford, in some cases in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the report says.

Thiele says one solution would be funding to help organizations, particularly smaller and BIPOC-led groups, set up the billing and other infrastructure they need. “If you want the nonprofit sector, which is reliant on grants and contracts and doing this incredibly challenging work in community, to make a major internal change to the way they operate, then they need investment in order to do that,” Thiele said. “With staff turnover being what it is right now, it’s a big risk for nonprofits to do new things,” she added.

The CSH report breaks down some of the primary issues that prevent homeless service providers from getting the most out of Medicaid funds, including administrative hurdles that force staff to work extra hours manually inputting data and doing duplicative work; denials and disenrollments for reasons that can feel capricious, such as minor technical errors; and difficulty knowing what services FCS will consider “supplemental” or new, as opposed to “supplanting” funding for services that already exists.

Many of the issues that exist at nonprofits are also relevant for KCRHA, which will have to train its system advocates—case managers with personal experience of homelessness who navigate Partnership for Zero clients into services and housing—to do all the things nonprofit service providers have identified as major challenges.

Earlier this year, KCRHA’s then-CEO Marc Dones told the agency’s implementation board that securing funds through FCS should be relatively simple, and expressed confidence that Partnership for Zero, which has fallen significantly behind schedule, would be at least 85 percent Medicaid-funded by next year. In fact, Dones called the agency’s 85 percent prediction “conservative,” adding that “if we are able to exceed that, then we will close the budget gap just on Medicaid reimbursement.” KCRHA baked this optimism into its 2024 budget, which assumes that Medicaid, through FCS, will provide about $5 million for Partnership for Zero, with KCRHA making up an estimated $900,000 gap.

Dones resigned earlier this year. The city of Seattle is currently paying them $250 an hour to come up with recommendations for using Medicaid funds “to maximize the region’s resources available to address homelessness”—a portfolio that seems quite similar to the the work CSH is doing for KCRHA.

Back in April, Dones said the KCRHA was about to start billing some services to Medicaid in a series of experimental “dry runs” that will “give us ample time to correct anything that is going wrong” before transitioning Partnership for Zero into a mostly Medicaid-funded program next year. Those dry runs haven’t happened, and the reasons for the delay remain somewhat opaque.

According to Thiele, CSH was supposed to move into Phase 2 of their “engagement” with KCRHA as soon as they finished the initial report earlier this year: The “dry run, and convenings across King County.” But, she said, “we’ve been waiting on our contract with them for some time. … They did recently give us a small contract to get started, but we were seeing this as probably a good 18 months of process work” before Medicaid billing can start in earnest. “It’s in motion, but I just can’t tell how far we’ll get with it.”

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said the agency is “on track for a ‘dry run’ this fall. … My guess is that there will be some kinks to work out, and we’ll have to adjust and evaluate as we go.” Later, Martens clarified that the “dry run… is still expected to happen before the end of the year. So we’re still in the process of setting up the system, policies, tech configurations, and trainings required to test how Medicaid billing would work in practice.”

Partnership for Zero is funded by corporate and philanthropic donors through the nonprofit We Are In, which is also paying for the contract between the KCRHA and Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Had Partnership for Zero achieved its original targets, every person living unsheltered in downtown Seattle would now be housed, and the KCRHA would be working to rapidly house each new person who arrived in the downtown area as part of the final, “hold steady” phase of the project. After this phase, KCRHA planned to expand the Partnership for Zero effort into other parts of Seattle and other regions of King County.

Since launching, the downtown effort has encountered many challenges, including a reluctance among private landlords to rent to people in the program. One issue that arose early on, according to a January 2023 memo from Dones to We Are In director Felicia Salcedo, is that landlords wanted assurances that formerly homeless tenants would be able to pay fair market rent after the first 12 months, when their Partnership for Zero rent subsidy runs out.

In February, We Are In announced another million dollars in funding for the program, but the future of the overall program remains unclear. We Are In declined to comment for this story.

Burien Considers Handing Contract for Homeless Services to Private Sweeps Startup With Scanty Record

The More We Love logo (fair use)

By Erica C. Barnett

For months now, the city of Burien has been locked in a stalemate over how to address a group of unsheltered people who remain in the city after repeated sweeps.

The latest plan: A potential contract with Kirkland mortgage broker Kristine Moreland, who offers private sweeps, at a cost of $515 per “camper,” or about $20,000 for a “40 person sweep,” through a new nonprofit called The More We Love, incorporated under the name The More Wee Love on April 10.

Moreland is a longtime volunteer at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a religious charity that offers shelter, housing, and a Christian treatment program, and used to run a small nonprofit called the MORELove Project, which was dissolved in 2019. In interviews and public comments, Moreland has argued that homelessness is a drug problem, not a housing problem. This view is in conflict with a more widely accepted approach called “housing first,” which holds that people can’t achieve lasting recovery if their basic needs aren’t met.

Burien officials have been debating how to deal with encampment residents since March, when the council and King County Library System voted to evict a group of people living in tents outside the building that houses Burien City Hall and the local library branch. Ever since, the city has swept this group of several dozen unsheltered people from place to place; in June, King County offered the city a million dollars, a shelter location, and 35 Pallet shelters, but a four-member council majority voted to reject that offer in July, arguing it was a bad deal for the city.

Meanwhile, the same council majority has spent the better part of the summer proposing sites that are unavailable or uninhabitable—like a contaminated Port of Seattle property located right at the end of a SeaTac Airport runway.

On August 21, the council plans to take up a new proposal to criminalize unsheltered homelessness in the city, modeled on Bellevue’s near-total “camping ban.”

Last week, the council—at the request of Mayor Sofia Aragon—directed City Manager Adolfo Bailon to “explore a contract with Kristine Moreland” for homeless services,  “given what we’ve seen in terms of outcomes.”

According to people who work with Burien’s homeless population, Moreland started showing up at encampments in April, shortly after the initial sweep at City Hall. By the next month, Moreland was pitching herself to Burien leaders as a more effective alternative to longstanding nonprofit groups like Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD) and REACH, which she described in an email to City Manager Adolfo Bailon and the council as “struggling” and “not…successful.”

“As you may know,” Moreland wrote to Bailon in May, “we have been monitoring the encampment downtown and have been working with a number of individuals living there to provide essential services such as food, shelter, and healthcare. While we have been successful in our efforts, we have also noticed that other resources have been struggling to address the needs of the encampment and its residents.”

“Our organization has worked with other local governments and non-profit organizations to provide compassionate and respectful assistance to those in need,” Moreland continued, “and we believe that we can help the city do the same.”

A majority of the council was apparently impressed by Moreland’s pitch. Last week, the council—at the request of Mayor Sofia Aragon—directed City Manager Adolfo Bailon to “explore a contract with Kristine Moreland” for homeless services,  “given what we’ve seen in terms of outcomes.”

What outcomes was Aragon referring to? According to Bailon, who singled out Moreland’s group during a presentation on Burien’s homelessness efforts last week, Moreland got a group of unsheltered people to move on from a piece of vacant land near Burien Town Square, and then performed a similar feat when an encampment popped up outside a nearby Grocery Outlet, clearing around 20 tents from the property and “identifying housing for multiple people” at the site.

Moreland declined to speak to PubliCola, and did not respond to a list of detailed questions about her work. Speaking to conservative commentator Jason Rantz on August 11, said The More We Love had “successfully removed 27 people” from the site by guiding them into “truthful, real, intentional services”—like detox and treatment—and getting “real organizations in there that can do the real work and understand how to actually help these humans.”

It’s unclear how many people Moreland has actually referred to detox, treatment, or housing. But here are some facts. For people with little or no income, getting into detox and treatment can take weeks or months. King County offers only two detox facilities for people who can’t pay for private detox, including the 33-bed Recovery Place center in Seattle, so competition is high. Even after longer-term treatment, relapse is extremely common,  especially for people who have nowhere to live; sober housing is an option for some, but beds are rare, and most facilities immediately evict people when they relapse.

Comparing her work favorably to longstanding nonprofits like the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Moreland told Rantz it was high time for the government to stop spending resources on people experiencing homelessness and let “the private sector step up”—including her own group, which she called one of “the most effective organizations I’ve seen yet.”

Aragon did not respond to a request for an interview. Bailon referred PubliCola’s questions to a spokesperson for the city, who said they had “no update to share on the nature or scope of any potential contract at this time as the directive was just issued this week during the City Council’s meeting.” The spokesperson then directed the rest of our questions to Moreland.

After one sweep, REACH case manager Stephanie Tidholm said, Moreland said she had housed 14 people, but Tidholm saw many of them in the relocated encampment a couple of weeks later. “We keep a spreadsheet of all our clients in Burien, and there is no way she housed 14 people.”

Moreland has told interviewers that her father struggled with addiction and was often homeless, an experience that has shaped her approach to people living unsheltered and struggling with addiction. “Nobody wants to be living in this hell, but the fact of the matter is it’s drug addiction, and that drags you down to the depths of despair,” Moreland recently told FOX 13 News. “So, it’s our job to lift them up and out of that.”

Talking to KIRO News before the Grocery Outlet sweep last last week, Moreland said she had already moved several people from the site into shelter or housing, and had “beds” available for at least another six people who remained at the location. “[We] do an intake at the beginning when they come into our care, Moreland explained. “Once we’ve done the intake, [and] we understand their full story, from there, we can connect them to services, and sometimes that looks like sending them home to their families. It just depends on what the greater story is.”

Jeff Rakow, the owner of the Grocery Outlet property, confirmed that he hired Moreland to remove the encampment, and called her work at the site “remarkable.”

“In response to widespread drug use and unsafe conditions for the unhoused and the community, coupled with the absence of urgent government action, we engaged The More We Love to connect those living in the encampment with human services,” getting people into “detox, shelter, back with family, or other solutions best suited to their individual needs.”

But people familiar with the homeless population in Burien say they continue to see the same people month after month, including people who have accepted Moreland’s housing and shelter offers and ended right back where they started. In one case, according to encampment volunteer Charles Schaefer, an encampment resident “told [volunteers] she transported him down to [a place in] Lacey,” about 50 miles south of Burien. Schaefer was head of the Burien Planning Commission until June, when the council majority ousted him for telling unsheltered people about a city-owned lot where they had a legal right to sleep.

The Lacey site was neither housing nor shelter, Schaefer said; “it was a detox or treatment facility, and that wasn’t what he was looking for or led to believe. So he took three buses to get back to Burien from down there,” Schaefer said. “He was lured with some offer that did not materialize.” PubliCola was unable to connect directly with this individual, but heard about his experience from Schaefer and two other sources.

In other cases, sources familiar with the homeless population in Burien say, Moreland’s clients received hotel beds for a few nights, then ended up back on the streets in Burien when the money for their rooms ran out. After an earlier sweep, REACH case manager Stephanie Tidholm said, Moreland claimed she had housed 14 people, but Tidholm saw many of them in the relocated encampment a couple of weeks later. “We keep a spreadsheet of all our clients in Burien, and there is no way she housed 14 people.”

Kristine Moreland speaks to KIRO News in front of the pile of rocks that has replaced an encampment near the Grocery Outlet in Burien. KIRO News screenshot.

During the recent Grocery Outlet sweep, longtime clients contacted Tidholm to tell her Moreland was offering housing and detox services to people who agreed to leave the site. “Nobody she was with knew where they were going,” Tidholm said. “Somebody told me they weren’t allowed to go [with her] because they weren’t going to do detox. They thought they had to leave no matter what.”

A video posted by Discovery Institute staffer Jonathan Choe, who was fired by KOMO News for promoting a rally held by the insurrectionist group the Proud Boys, features a seemingly impaired woman describing how grateful she is for Moreland’s work to secure “the hotel we’re going into.”

According to Tidholm and others familiar with the encampment, Moreland moved as many as 12 encampment residents to a hotel in Renton owned by the company REBLX. Although REBLX has partnered with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and LEAD to provide rooms for their clients in the past, the company is not itself a service or shelter provider. Proposals to turn the whole 116-room hotel into a shelter for Burien residents fell flat, in part, because Renton law effectively prohibits new shelters in the city.

Already, according to sources familiar with the situation, REBLX has kicked out one of the former encampment residents Moreland placed there for violating the hotel’s code of conduct, which applies to anyone staying in its rooms. REBLX did not respond to a request for comment.

Since the sweep, Tidholm said she has only managed to reconnect with clients who didn’t go to Renton; the others, she said, “are now gone.”

The size of any potential contract between Moreland and the city of Burien remains unclear. A sample budget sent to council members by one of Moreland’s allies, Dan Mathews (of the commercial real estate company Kidder Mathews) suggested that King County could use the $1 million it proposed spending on shelter in Burien, plus additional funds the city could save by “redirecting resources away from current less effective solutions for the unhoused” to hire Moreland at an annual cost of $1.8 million.

In his pitch to Burien officials, Mathews credited Moreland with leading the team that swept a notorious Seattle encampment called the Jungle in 2016; building the city’s first “mobile shower truck”; and providing “outreach services for SPD Seattle’s Navigation team,” which removed encampments during the Jenny Durkan administration. The first two items appear to refer to Moreland’s work as a volunteer with UGM, which provided outreach before the city swept the Jungle. The city has not responded to questions about whether Moreland ever provided “services” for the Navigation Team, but the team itself was made up entirely of city employees. Mathews did not respond to a request for an interview.

Two incidents in Moreland’s past could raise concerns for the city as it considers signing a contract for her services. The first is her arrest for DUI last August, when Kirkland police pulled Moreland over for allegedly driving 52 mph in a 35 mph zone. (In an incident in 2021, an officer who pulled Moreland over for speeding said she drove “past my vehicle fast enough that it shook” and acted “inconvenienced” by the stop.)

When Moreland rolled down the window, according to the police report, her “eyes were watery and her speech was slurred,” and the “odor of intoxicants was emanating” from her breath. Moreland failed a field sobriety test and blew 0.133 on a blood alcohol breath test—significantly above the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Subsequent tests showed she had a blood alcohol level between 0.11 and 0.13 percent.

Between 2014 and 2016, according to the charges, Moreland facilitated “short-term, high-cost loans” with an unlicensed lender for at least four home buyers, then turned around and refinanced the loans through the company that employed her as a mortgage broker, pocketing the commission.

The court initially suspended Moreland’s license for 90 days. Instead of accepting the penalty, she contested the charges, arguing that the breath test was inadmissible. Her case is now on hold pending the results of an unrelated lawsuit challenging the alcohol testing method used by agencies across the state. In that case, lawyers for a man arrested for a DUI argued that because the state’s standard testing equipment truncates test results after the second decimal instead of rounding them up or down, it could indicate that a driver was more intoxicated than they actually were, resulting in unfair charges.

A drunk driving charge is not, in itself, disqualifying for a job working with people who are actively using drugs and alcohol; in fact, many drug and alcohol counselors get into the work because of their own personal experiences with addiction and recovery. Given the zero-tolerance views Moreland has expressed about drug and alcohol use among homeless people, though, her own recent alcohol-related arrest and decision to fight the charges instead of taking responsibility seem inconsistent with the kind of policies she advocates for others.

Another incident that could be relevant to the council’s contract deliberations took place in 2020, when the state Department of Financial Institutions found Moreland had violated the state Consumer Lending Act while working for the licensed mortgage company Caliber Home Loans. The charges included engaging in unfair or deceptive practices, aiding and abetting violations of of the law, and making false statements to the department, among other violations.

Between 2014 and 2016, according to the charges, Moreland facilitated “short-term, high-cost loans” with an unlicensed lender for at least four home buyers, then turned around and refinanced the loans through Caliber, pocketing the commission.  Later, according to DFI documents, Moreland failed to report on her license renewal application that she was under investigation for violating state law, which is itself another violation.

Moreland could have lost her license over the charges or been permanently barred from practice. Instead, the department agreed to a consent order in 2021 in which Moreland would pay a $15,000 investigation fee, plus another $14,000 to fund financial literacy and education programs. State records indicate that the department put her on a $500-a-month payment plan for her $24,000 unpaid balance the following year; a spokesperson for DFI said Moreland still owes the state $18,500, and has paid $10,750 so far. “Ms. Moreland has missed periodic payments and payments have been modified to $50 per month,” the spokesperson said.

Many people who spoke to PubliCola for this story noted that no matter what approach a service provider takes with their clients, access to shelter and housing is dictated by the availability of shelter and housing—and currently, there isn’t enough of either. According to every estimate of King County’s homeless population, there are thousands more unsheltered people than shelter beds—perhaps tens of thousands.

Housing is even harder to come by, especially for people living in encampments. Under federal rules, service providers have virtually no ability to allocate housing themselves; instead, applications go through a process called Coordinated Entry that prioritizes people based on need. Private entities that don’t participate in the official housing system like Union Gospel Mission, can house people directly, but the housing they offer often comes with high barriers to entry, including drug testing, work requirements, and even dress codes for women.

If Burien’s elected officials aren’t aware of the fact that that sweeps don’t actually address homelessness it seems like Burien’s business owners are. As Schaefer, the former planning commissioner, notes, every time an encampment gets swept, business owners fill the vacant property with rocks. “I think the businesses know it’s not going to be permanent and the homeless folks are going to show back up at some point.” If most people were actually accessing untapped shelter and housing resources through private groups like Moreland’s, why would there be any need to keep them from coming back?

Burien Leaders Face Crisis of Confidence on Homelessness, More on Former KCRHA Director’s Next Steps

1. The Burien City Council is still seeing fallout from its 4-3 decision to oust Burien Planning Commissioner Charles Schaefer two weeks ago, ostensibly because he directed unsheltered people to a piece of city-owned land prior to the May sweep of an encampment outside Burien City Hall earlier this year.

Schaefer said he was acting as a private individual, and not in his capacity as a volunteer member of the planning board, when he, along with Councilmember Cydney Moore, informed people who had been living at an encampment next to City Hall that it would be legal for them to set up tents on a nearby piece of city-owned property that some condo owners have been using as a dog relief area.

The vote to oust Schaefer sparked a wave of resignations by other volunteer commission members, including the entire Planning Commission.

The city later rented out the land to a local animal shelter run by the head of the Burien business group Discovery Burien for a future dog park, displacing encampment residents again. Many moved their tents to a small strip of city-owned land along SW 152nd St., the “Main Street” of Burien. Within weeks, large boulders had popped up along the strip, along with campaign signs for Alex Andrade, a city council candidate running on a public safety and accountability platform who’s endorsed by three members of the Burien council’s four-person anti-encampment majority.

The Burien Human Services Commission’s letter was a toned-down version of the initial draft, which accused city leaders of “choosing … to invest time and energy on show trials that do nothing to provide access to housing and other support for our neighbors.”

“We’re running out of space and Burien does not have any piece of public property that’s not parks that’s remotely habitable,” Moore told PubliCola this week. “Over the last several months, at almost every council meeting since the first sweep happened, I have asked at the start of meetings if we could amend our agenda to have a discussion about where these people can go.” But every time, Moore said, her request has been deemed out of order—a claim that is not supported by the city’s council rules, which allow proposals to “alter the current agenda” near the beginning of each meeting.

Although council members, including Deputy Mayor Kevin Schilling, have claimed that encampment residents are simply refusing to accept shelter and housing, the city’s own Human Services Commission noted in a letter to the council last week that this claim “is simply not true.” The letter also decries a recent decision by the council and city manager Adolfo Bailon to reject an offer from King County to provide $1 million and 35 Pallet shelters, which can house two people each, along with a land swap that would open up a city-owned site for the shelter.

It was a toned-down version of the commission’s initial draft, which accused city leaders of “choosing … to invest time and energy on show trials that do nothing to provide access to housing and other support for our neighbors.”

Meanwhile, Bailon, who was hired by the city council, is undergoing a performance review by an outside consultant. It’s unclear whether the council plans to publicly discuss the details of that review, which is reportedly less than flattering. In Burien, which has a population of just over 50,000, the council hires (and can fire) the city manager, who manages the daily operations of the city.

2. Former King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones, whose last official day at the authority was June 16, is negotiating a contract from the city of Seattle, through the Human Services Department  for work “related to using Medicaid funding for homelessness services,” an HSD spokesman confirmed.

As we reported earlier this month, the contract will serve as a kind of payment in lieu of severance. It’s unclear what work product Dones will be expected to produce, and the city did not reveal the size of the potential contract; PubliCola has filed a public disclosure request for this information.

As CEO of the homelessness authority, Dones was a vocal proponent for using a Medicaid program called Foundational Community Supports, which provides pre-tenancy services for chronically homeless people, to fund the KCHRA’s Partnership for Zero effort to eliminate visible homelessness downtown.

Neither Dones nor the city provided further details about this contract, which they said would be finalized this week, except that, according to Dones, “broadly[,] it’s pulling together the policy framework to integrate the systems.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this item said that Dones was going to work for the Schultz Family Foundation; Dones followed up to say that they are not taking a position there. 

“I Regret Falling Into the Trap”: Former Homelessness Board Member Reflects on Controversy Over Sex Offender that Led to Her Ouster

King County Regional Homelessness Authority logo

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority gathered the members of its Continuum of Care (CoC) membership to vote on new members and a new charter for the Continuum of Care Board, a volunteer committee that, among other duties, oversees the KCRHA’s annual application for tens of millions of dollars in federal funding.

The online-only “convening,” whose public portion lasted less than 30 minutes, came on the heels of an explosive meeting earlier this year at which one of the CoC Board’s co-chairs, Shanéé Colston, yelled at another member, Kristina Sawyckyj, who objected to the appointment of a sex offender to the board. Sawyckyj, who said the nominee had also touched her inappropriately, went silent and left the meeting after Colston and another board member told her that her comments were out of order.

“We have no right to out anyone in this space,” Colston said. “I’m telling you that you cannot talk like that in this meeting. I will not have that here! If anyone wants to talk like that you will be muted and removed from this meeting.”

“This is about equity. And everyone—everyone— deserves housing. I don’t care if they’re a sex offender!” Colston continued. “This is an inclusive space, and we are equitable to all.” Another board member, Kristi Hamilton, defended the nominee and told Sawyckyj she should go to the police if she had a crime to report but that it wasn’t appropriate for her to raise those concerns in a public board meeting.

Colston told PubliCola she received death threats from around the world after the story about her comments went viral. She said she regrets “falling into the trap, and… that I was not prepared and I responded in reaction to [Sawyckyj’s comments] and not in thought.”

PubliCola reported on the meeting in May. Over the next few weeks, our story was picked up (and distorted) by right-wing media worldwide, spreading from local FOX affiliates to the New York Post to the Daily Mail. A petition, which falsely stated that the board approved the sex offender’s nomination—in reality, he withdrew his application—called for Colston’s removal “from all leadership positions” at the authority.  Many of the articles about the incident used racist language to portray Colston as a stereotypical angry Black woman lashing out at a meek white colleague (described by the Daily Mail as a “wheelchair-bound mother”) on behalf of a “child rapist.”

Colston told PubliCola she received death threats from around the world after the story about her comments went viral. She said she regrets “falling into the trap, and… that I was not prepared and I responded in reaction to [Sawyckyj’s comments] and not in thought.”

At the height of the uproar, KCHRA chief program officer Peter Lynn sent Colston a letter demanding she resign, which she refused to do. Last week’s election accomplished the same result by prematurely terminating Colston’s three-year term.

According to Colston, she and other board members were not aware that Crowfoot was a sex offender “until it was announced (by Sawyckyj) that day,” and said that the committee that reviewed board applications before bringing them to the full board rejected several applicants because of their past behavior—including drinking on the job and using housing vouchers “to manipulate women,” according to Colston.

“I asked for her to be muted on her mic as it’s not the responsibility of a victim to have to be vulnerable and publicly announce their trauma to the world,” Colston said, “and it was breaking the rules” of the board. “I don’t agree he or others should have a seat of power on this CoC Board,” she continued, “but the voices of their experience with being homeless have to be heard, listened to, and some form of plan implemented to end homelessness [for them] as well.

“I don’t agree [the sex offender] or others should have a seat of power on this CoC Board, but the voices of their experience with being homeless have to be heard, listened to, and some form of plan implemented to end homelessness [for them] as well.

When she said that everyone, including sex offenders, deserve to be housed, Colston said she was identifying a well-known problem—sex offenders, as well as convicted arsonists, are systematically denied access to shelter and affordable housing, forcing many into unsheltered homelessness.

“When I stated that I was glad that he was there, it means that arsonists and sex offenders are a very vulnerable population” Colston said. “If KCRHA is really centering the Theory of Change and listening to those with lived experience to end homelessness for all, as radical as it may be, those populations of vulnerable individuals are included in housing all people.”

During Friday’s meeting, interim KCRHA CEO Helen Howell read a statement apologizing for “any distress or discomfort caused by the incident” at the CoC Board meeting, “and we want to assure you that we take this matter seriously [and] are actively working to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future.”

In addition to replacing Colston and electing eight new board members, Continuum of Care members voted Friday to adopt a new charter for the board that relegates “lived experience” to just one of many qualifications for board seats and significantly reduces the board’s authority.

With the Departure of Founding CEO Dones, What Comes Next for the Region’s Homelessness Agency?

By Erica C. Barnett

When the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s founding CEO, Marc Dones, announced they were stepping down earlier this month (news PubliCola broke on Twitter from vacation), reactions among homeless service providers, advocates, and agency insiders ranged from sighs of relief to deep concern over what’s next for the beleaguered agency.

Over the past two years, since Dones was hired in March 2021, the KCRHA has struggled to find its footing through a series of pivots, funding battles with Seattle and King County, and internal and public debates over its mission.

Did Seattle and King County create a regional homelessness agency to solve homelessness as quickly as possible, or is the KCRHA merely a clearinghouse for homeless service contracts previously administered by Seattle and King County, its two primary funders? Should the KCRHA set regional policies and spending priorities and expect its member cities to fall in line, or should cities have freedom to establish their own strategies based on their own local politics and context? Is “housing first” a nonnegotiable goal, or is shelter, even basic shelter with mats on the floor, a critical part of the region’s approach to homelessness?

One thing is clear: With Dones out, there is a power vacuum at KCRHA that will be difficult to fill, in a very practical sense: Despite the usual talk of a “thorough national search,” it’s unlikely the agency will be overwhelmed with qualified applicants. Dones, readers may recall, was the second pick for the position, and ascended to the job after the KCRHA board’s first choice, Regina Cannon, turned it down in 2020. The position now comes pre-loaded with two years of baggage and more urgency than ever; a new CEO will need not just a big-picture vision for the region, but a plan to show swift progress on homelessness and get the authority back on track.

Prior to taking the CEO position, Dones was a homelessness consultant whose firm, the National Innovation Service, created the framework for the KCRHA. As the architect of the regional plan, Dones frequently fought efforts to alter it, battling with local leaders over funding priorities, questioning the expertise of longtime service providers, and expending scarce political capital on ambitious plans that didn’t always pan out—like an early proposal to make big investments in safe parking lots for the thousands of people living in their vehicles across King County.

Under Dones’ leadership, the KCRHA established a clear picture of the homelessness problem in King County, but the agency also fell behind schedule on many of its initial goals.

Dones’ supporters praised them as a visionary who emphasized the disproportionate impact of homelessness on people of color,  particularly Black King County residents, foregrounded and empowered people with direct, “lived” experience of homelessness, and never shied away from telling the unvarnished truth about what it would take to truly end homelessness in the region. Critics said Dones elevated lived experience over practical expertise, engaged in unnecessary battles with potential allies like Mayor Bruce Harrell and homeless service providers, and focused on the 10,000-foot view while neglecting ground-level basics, like opening severe weather shelters and paying homeless services providers on time.

Under Dones’ leadership, the KCRHA established a clear picture of the homelessness problem in King County—tens of thousands of people are living unsheltered, in vehicles, and in emergency housing such as hotels and congregate shelters—and housing or even sheltering them all is a problem with a price tag of billions of dollars a year.

But the agency also fell behind schedule on many of its initial goals, including relatively short-term commitments like the plan, announced with great fanfare in February 2022, to end unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle in “as little as 12 months” through a public-private partnership with the corporate-backed nonprofit agency We Are In. Although efforts to respond to homelessness continue downtown—including escalated sweeps by the city of Seattle, combined with more thoughtful one-off projects like the Third Avenue Project—unsheltered homelessness remains a pervasive issue in the area.

The plan, known as Partnership for Zero, was for the KCRHA to use private donations to hire dozens of outreach workers with “lived experience,” who would serve as a single point of contact for people living unsheltered downtown, navigating them “longitudinally” and directly from street homelessness into permanent housing, much of it provided by private landlords motivated by a desire to help solve the homelessness crisis. The coordinating body for this partnership is a “housing command center” that meets daily to discuss clients’ individual cases, with the goal of moving them into permanent housing that works for them.

From inception, there were a number of issues with this approach, chief among them the fact that Seattle—unlike, say, New Orleans and Houston, two cities that have successfully moved people directly from the streets to housing—does not have an abundance of vacant apartments, much less housing low-income people can afford. (The Partnership for Zero plan assumes that, in many cases, people will begin paying full rent after a year or so of subsidy).

The plan also assumes that Medicaid will become the primary funding source for the partnership, an assumption many providers have called premature, given the difficulties existing agencies face securing Medicaid reimbursement even for services that are traditionally covered by the federal program.

By setting up a in-house outreach program that duplicated work the agency’s own nonprofit outreach contractors have been providing for years, the KCRHA also created an unequal system in which government employees receive substantially higher pay, and access to more housing resources, than existing outreach providers. This two-track system has understandably irked some nonprofit outreach agencies, who have protested that setting up a parallel system puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to helping clients and retaining qualified staff, who can earn far more money doing the same job for the KCRHA.

The agency’s initial five-year plan—widely, if somewhat unfairly, criticized for being a “$12 billion plan to end homelessness”—included a number of unforced errors, beyond its eye-popping price tag.

More importantly, the partnership hasn’t produced the results it promised, putting about 200 people so far on a “path” toward housing, according to the KCRHA—one reason agency leaders could sunset the program in the post-Dones era.

One criticism of the KCRHA, under Dones’ leadership, is that Dones’ big-picture proposals have sometimes been at odds with political and practical realities. For example, the agency’s initial five-year plan—widely, if somewhat unfairly, criticized for being a “$12 billion plan to end homelessness”—included a number of unforced errors, beyond its eye-popping price tag.

Under the agreement that established the KCRHA, the five-year plan was supposed to set out practical goals for the first five years of agency operations, with the goal of reducing homelessness among specific population groups. Instead, the initial version of the plan laid out what it would cost, in theory, to eliminate unsheltered homelessness in five years. (The plan does not deal directly with housing, which is the responsibility of other agencies, like the city of Seattle’s Office of Housing.) The plan proposed spending billions of dollars a year on shelter, along with thousands of new “safe parking” spaces for people living in their vehicles—an utterly impractical proposal, given the region’s inability to site even one permanent safe lot in more than a decade of efforts to do so.

The initial five-year plan also called for reducing funding for tiny house villages, singling out this shelter type (along with the region’s tiny house village provider, the Low Income Housing Institute) as undesirable despite the fact that the city of Seattle, the KCRHA’s chief funder, prefers to fund tiny houses over almost every other form of shelter. Defending the proposal to cut funding for tiny houses while investing billions in other forms of shelter and parking lots for people to live in their cars, Dones said it was “just math,” pointing to a survey the agency conducted of about 180 homeless people that was used to determine the mix of services in the plan.

The proposal antagonized other existing shelter providers, too, by asserting that almost one in four shelter beds are vacant (and, by implication, useless). And it set off alarms among suburban city leaders because it called for the complete elimination of funding for congregate shelters—the only form of shelter that exists in many cities outside Seattle.

Ultimately, the agency adopted a rewritten plan that omitted most of the prescriptive language from the initial proposal, along with language criticizing the purported failures of the existing shelter system. While the original proposal included seven goals and dozens of sub-strategies, the plan adopted by the agency’s boards earlier this month focuses on “one goal”: Reducing unsheltered homelessness and preventing homeless people from dying. More than 30 pages lighter than the original proposal, the new five-year plan meets the bare minimum requirements of the KCRHA’s charter while allowing plenty of room for future leaders to pick their own priorities. Continue reading “With the Departure of Founding CEO Dones, What Comes Next for the Region’s Homelessness Agency?”

The 2023 Housing Levy Renewal is Meeting The Moment

An overview of the Seattle Housing Levy renewal plan, via City of Seattle

By Patience Malaba and Jane Hopkins, RN

Nearly every day, our organizations hear from workers, employers, and housing providers about the tremendous need for more housing options across Seattle. Just how big is the need? The Washington State Department of Commerce just released new projections that the city will need about 112,000 new units over the next 20 years.

To get there, we’ll need to maximize all the tools in our toolbox. The good news is that there is momentum. The state legislature went big and bold for changes that will make an impact, by investing in the housing trust fund and adopting reforms that allow more missing middle housing around the state.

In Seattle, these improvements work in concert with a proven housing program that is up for renewal this year: The seven-year housing levy. Mayor Bruce Harrell released his levy proposal in March and the city council is leading a process to place it on the ballot this November.

For nearly four decades, the housing levy has been our city’s voter-approved funding source to build and maintain thousands of units of permanent, affordable homes for vulnerable and low-income residents. It is an unparalleled success story—not only supporting the construction of housing, but providing assistance to seniors to mitigate displacement, emergency rental funds to prevent homelessness, and targeted homeowner support to address inequities and build generational wealth.

The proposed $970 million levy package builds on this record of accomplishment, and is supported by a diverse coalition of leaders and stakeholders who have been rethinking how we leverage levy funds to meet urgent needs while better coordinating with other funding sources. Our shared goal and commitment has been to partner with the mayor and city council to present voters with the best possible levy proposal this November, to make the largest—and most lasting—impact on the diverse housing needs of our communities.

The next levy should build upon proven and cost-effective staffing and housing programs that restore lives. This includes both the physical residences and the staffing needed to keep people housed and on pathways to stability and recovery.

First, we must expand our commitment to the basics: Thousands of units of affordable homes for low-income, working, and vulnerable families and individuals. These include new construction, restoration and preservation of existing buildings, and purchase of buildings to maintain or improve affordability.

Second, we need to emphasize the importance of permanent, supportive housing solutions for people we are helping back into stable housing or those at risk of slipping into homelessness. Levy funds have, and must continue, to be part of the larger solution as we address the acute and individualized needs of people experiencing mental health and addiction crises. The next levy should build upon proven and cost-effective staffing and housing programs that restore lives. This includes both the physical residences and the staffing needed to keep people housed and on pathways to stability and recovery.

A third critical element is maintaining funds for emergency rental assistance—making sure a low-income worker who loses a paycheck or has an unexpected medical bill doesn’t lose their home, resulting in greater downstream costs and trauma. These simple and proven programs to prevent eviction and homelessness are essential to community stability and economic independence.

Finally, our levy renewal should continue progress in addressing past inequities that have led to lower rates of homeownership for communities of color, and greater rates of displacement and gentrification in historically redlined neighborhoods of Seattle. Thoughtful investments in down payment assistance, home repair, and other programs not only allow families to place and maintain roots in our city but provide for future generations to achieve goals of homeownership and financial equity.

Seattle voters have demonstrated a commitment to affordable housing again and again, dating back to our first housing levy in 1986. But we are not taking this commitment for granted. Voters need to know that the investments they approve are making an impact at a scale that makes a significant difference. The levy is not a cure-all for every housing need facing our city, but it is an integral part of the solution and must expand to continue serving as the foundation for a broader set of investments.

Now, with the need greater than ever, it’s critical to unify  around a bold vision for affordable housing. We look forward to building on this record of success with a 2023 levy renewal that meets this moment and provides a foundation for the future.

Patience Malaba is the Executive Director of the Housing Development Consortium, a 200-member association of affordable and low-income housing developers, providers, and advocates.

Jane Hopkins, RN, is the President of SEIU 1199NW, a union representing nurses, care providers, and other healthcare professionals.