Category: Mayor Harrell

City Paid Consultant Tim Ceis $280,000 to “Encourage Agreement” and Build “Community Consensus” for Harrell’s Light Rail Route

Four potential light rail routes through the CID; the Sound Transit board adopted the third route from left, which Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell sponsored, as its preferred alternative last week.

By Erica C. Barnett

The city of Seattle spent $280,000 over the past year paying longtime local consultant Tim Ceis—a former deputy mayor widely known as “the Shark” for his combative, “Machiavellian” style—to lobby Sound Transit on a West Seattle-to-Ballard light rail extension, PubliCola has learned. The no-bid, sole-source contract falls just under the maximum amount, $285,000, that city agencies can legally pay consultants before they have to solicit public bids.

According to Ceis’ contract, his work included building “community consensus” on behalf of the city’s preferred light rail alternative—a controversial last-minute option that eliminates long-planned stations serving the Chinatown-International District and First Hill in favor of a second station in Pioneer Square and a new station a few blocks from the existing Stadium Station. Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said the contract amounts to around 20 hours of work a week, although it’s unclear how many hours Ceis has actually worked on the mayor’s behalf.

Harrell sponsored the new alternative with the support of King County Executive Dow Constantine, at a meeting where the Sound Transit board adopted Harrell’s proposal as its preferred alternative last week.

According to a redacted copy of Ceis’ contract, his work for the city involved “developing and representing the Mayor’s position” on the light-rail route, “developing positive board-level relationships that support Seattle’s goals for [the West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail Extension] and enable effective decision-making at the ST Board” and “encourag[ing] agreement around recommendations and modifications considered by the ST Board.” Formally, the contract is between the Seattle Department of Transportation, which answers to the mayor, and Ceis’ firm, Ceis Bayne East.

Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine have repeatedly suggested that “the CID community” was united in support of a light rail alternative that bypasses their neighborhood, but the illusion of that consensus was decisively broken when thousands of people signed a petition supporting a station in Chinatown, and dozens showed up to hold signs and testify against a route that skips their neighborhood, last week.

Under the contract, Ceis was responsible for getting “key constituencies” to support the mayor’s preferred route and station locations and helping them craft their “comments and positions” in favor of this route.

As PubliCola reported, Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine have repeatedly suggested that “the CID community” was united in support of a light rail alternative that bypasses their neighborhood, but the illusion of that consensus was decisively broken when thousands of people signed a petition supporting a station in Chinatown, and dozens showed up to hold signs and testify against a route that skips their neighborhood, last week.

Ceis and his firm are being paid significantly more per year than Anne Fennessy, a consultant hired by then-mayor Jenny Durkan to serve as the city’s dedicated representative to Sound Transit in 2018. Fennessy’s $180,000-a-year contract raised eyebrows both for its size and the fact that Fennessy was a personal friend of Durkan’s. Fennessy’s work consisted largely of representing the city in meetings with Sound Transit staff and coordinating technical input, according to her contract.

Ceis’ firm, which helped draft the Compassion Seattle initiative, received $25,000 for its work on Compassion Seattle, the failed initiative on homelessness that Harrell adopted as a pillar of his homelessness policy. Ceis maxed out to Harrell’s mayoral campaign in 2021 and worked behind the scenes on an independent expenditure committee supporting Harrell.

Ceis directed our questions about his contract to Harrell’s office. Housen said Ceis “filled a gap” when the city was transitioning between dedicated representatives to Sound Transit, “providing expertise, analysis, and historical context over the last year.”

Sound Transit Board Adopts Major Last-Minute Changes to 2016 Light Rail Plan, Skipping Chinatown and First Hill

By Erica C. Barnett

After five hours of public testimony and a lengthy, often contentious debate, the Sound Transit board voted Thursday to adopt as its “preferred option” for the light rail extension through downtown Seattle a last-minute, back-of-the-napkin alternative that eliminates two long-planned stations serving the Chinatown-International District (CID) and First Hill neighborhoods in favor of new stations at Pioneer Square and just north of the current Stadium Station. The plan represents a stark departure from the Sound Transit 3 package voters approved in 2016, which included both the CID and “Midtown” stations.

The board also voted to keep a Fourth Avenue “shallower” station option on the table for further study.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who promoted the new “north-south” option in his recent State of the County speech, said keeping Fourth on the table would give people “false hope” about the possibility of a future station in Chinatown, while arguing, along with Harrell, that skipping the CID entirely was what “the community” wanted.

But the meeting, which I covered in real time on Twitter, starkly illustrated what should have been obvious to Sound Transit board members all along: Far from being a monolith united in opposition to a station in Chinatown, the CID community is starkly divided, with a large contingent favoring a station that actually serves the neighborhood, even if it means ten years or more of construction on Fourth Avenue.

Advocates for both alternatives sorted themselves, over the course of the meeting, into two sign-waving groups on either side of the meeting room—black T-shirts and white signs against the CID station on the left, and a larger group of red T-shirts and signs supporting the station on the right. Each group clapped and hollered when someone testified in favor of their position—a clear sign, if the board needed one, that the prevailing narrative about a single “community” opposed to the CID station had always been reductive and condescending.

This wasn’t what County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Bruce Harrell had in mind when they introduced the new  “north-south” alternative just two months ago. Both men have argued that skipping over the CID is the best way to avoid harming a vulnerable community. Constantine has also portrayed a second Pioneer Square station as an opportunity to develop a whole “new neighborhood” where the King County Administration Building and downtown jail currently stand, part of what he’s calling his “Civic Campus Initiative.”

“Quite candidly, [the new option] came organically from the community. There are no backroom deals being made. We’ve been trying to be transparent. We’re trying to work openly and thinking out loud as things evolve.” —Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell

Harrell, who attended the meeting virtually from out of town, has argued that moving the station out of Chinatown is the only option that prevents Sound Transit from repeating the region’s legacy of disinvestment, redlining, and harmful development in the neighborhood, which was divided by I-5 in the 1960s.

“A construction period for 10 to 12 years could cause irreparable harm,” Harrell said. “And this is a treasure; this is a gem.” Suggesting repeatedly that Fourth Avenue supporters were looking at the issue from a  “pure transit plane,” Harrell said equity was more important than what makes sense for transit riders who may just be passing through the neighborhood.

“Quite candidly, [the new option] came organically from the community,” Harrell said. As someone on the pro-CID station side of the room yelled, “Not true!” Harrell continued, “There are no backroom deals being made. We’ve been trying to be transparent. We’re trying to work openly and thinking out loud as things evolve.”

Many community members who testified—including the leaders of the Seattle CID Preservation and Development Authority (SCIPDA) and Uwajimaya—argued that the majority of people in the CID actually support keeping the station in the neighborhood, as long as Sound Transit provides mitigation for construction impacts. “Simply put, this is the best choice for the future of our community,” said Jared Johnson, the co-executive director of SCIPDA. “To have a world-class transit hub at the doorstep of the CID means a future full of opportunity and connectivity for our residents and businesses.”

King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who cast the lone “no” vote on the new north-south option, said, “Construction impacts are temporary. The benefits of transit in a community are permanent.”

Not only will eliminating the CID station kill all future hope of a single Seattle transit hub where people can transfer between Sounder, Amtrak, light rail, and buses, it will cut off access to the neighborhood from Southeast Seattle, another community that has been neglected and poorly served by major infrastructure projects, like Sound Transit’s current at-grade light rail line. Under the preferred alternative, future riders between the south end and the CID will have to transfer between two stations at SoDo or go to Pioneer Square, transfer, and head back in the direction they came from.

Additionally, riders from the CID who want to access the new lines will have to either walk north to a new station near City Hall, at Fifth and James, or travel north several blocks from a station at the current site of a Salvation Army shelter in a forbidding, industrial part of south downtown crisscrossed by multi-lane arterial roads and bordered on the south by the elevated I-90 on-ramps, as the Urbanist has documented.

“It’s powerful to look out over the hearing room and see seniors, people of color, calling on us to support the Fourth Avenue option. Construction impacts are temporary. The benefits of transit in a community are permanent.”—King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove

As public commenters with limited mobility noted Thursday, walking long distances, especially up steep hills like the one on James St., isn’t an option for everybody; in practice, the new “north” and “south” stations will be inaccessible to them and many other people, particularly elders, living in the area.

Although Constantine said continuing to study the Fourth Avenue option would create “false hope” for those who support it, both he and Harrell joined a strong board majority in voting for an amendment by King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci and Washington State Department of Transportation director Roger Millar to continue studying that alternative.

Balducci was less successful, however, with another amendment (also co-sponsored by Millar) that would re-connect the “spine” of the system—which will be split into segments when expansion lines to Ballard and West Seattle open —preserving the existing connection between South Seattle and the CID and keeping a one-seat ride from Lynnwood to Tacoma.

Constantine, in a back-and-forth with Sound Transit planning director Don Billen, argued that the board rejected a similar plan in 2015 for reasons that still apply today. “We have to stop going back and reconsidering everything we’ve ever decided,” he concluded.

Balducci, exasperated, responded that the only reason she proposed her alternative in the first place was because Constantine just put two brand-new, never-before-considered stations on the table. “The reason I bring this up now is not just because I want to re-litigate things we thought about eight years ago, but because there’s a significant new proposal on the table that changes the way the system works,” Balducci said.

The cost and feasibility of the new stations and the tunnel that would connect them is unknown, as is the cost of mitigation the agency may have to provide for eliminating the Midtown Station, which would have served First Hill. If the north-south option goes forward, it will be the second time Sound Transit has cut First Hill out of its plans; when the agency eliminated the original First Hill station in 2005, it ended up having to pay for a new First Hill streetcar.

Although Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez said eliminating a station in First Hill would not raise the same equity concerns as building a light rail station in the CID, the Transportation Choices Coalition has noted that thousands of the 15,500 riders who would commute to that station are hospital workers who commute from outside the city, including Pierce and South King County.

Several Sound Transit board members raised concerns not merely about the details of the new station proposal, but about the implications of moving forward so decisively on station options that have barely been studied, have no engineering behind them, and whose true costs are still unknown. Although current cost estimates put the Fourth Avenue “shallower” option as much as $800 million more expensive than the “baseline” alternative, that baseline—a hub at Fifth Avenue that would have provided the most direct access to existing transit lines—was rejected long ago because of equity concerns, and should probably be retired as a point of comparison. In addition, much of the additional cost would come from replacing a City of Seattle-owned viaduct near Union Station—a disruptive project that will need to be completed eventually, whether the light rail station happens or not.

A small contingent of advocates showed up yesterday to make the case for station options at the other end of the downtown segment in South Lake Union, where the board is considering two alternative sites along Denny Way—a preferred alternative at Westlake Avenue, and a second option at Terry Ave. N. Harrell proposed keeping the Terry option on the table because of construction impacts at Westlake.

Light Rail Board Members Seek Middle Ground as Plan to Skip Chinatown, Midtown Stations Moves Forward

Dow Constantine and Bruce Harrell have proposed a “North-South” light rail plan that would eliminate planned Chinatown-International District and Midtown stations. A compromise proposal, sponsored by Claudia Balducci and Roger Millar, would restore the “spine” of the system and keep some connections to the CID.

By Erica C. Barnett

On Wednesday, in advance of a Sound Transit board meeting that could reshape a long-planned light rail expansion linking downtown Seattle to Ballard and West Seattle, King County Councilmember and Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci proposed an alternative route that preserves the existing “spine” of the system while eliminating a planned station in the Chinatown International District (CID). Voters approved the expansion, called “ST3,” in 2016.

The last-minute proposal is a direct response to, and amendment of, another last-minute proposal backed by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Bruce Harrell, who is sponsoring the motion. That “north-south” plan, which has no cost estimates, engineering, or design, would take a new light rail station on Fourth Avenue in Chinatown off the table, eliminate a planned “Midtown” station that would have served First Hill, and add a new “south of CID” station a few blocks north of the existing Stadium station south of downtown.

The big advantage to his plan, according to Constantine, is that in addition to eliminating the disruptive and harmful impacts of construction in Chinatown, it would set the stage for a whole new “neighborhood” centered around the site of the current King County Administration Building.

Compared to the “north-south” proposal, Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducc said, “this option would mean less out of direction travel and better connections for South and East riders [and] retain a one seat ride from South Seattle, South King and Pierce to the CID.”

Balducci’s proposal, co-sponsored by Washington State Department of Transportation director Roger Millar, would re-connect the “spine” of the system—which, under all previous plans, would be split into segments when expansion lines to Ballard and West Seattle open in the 2030s—keeping a one-seat ride from Lynnwood to Tacoma and, importantly, preserving the existing connection between South Seattle and the CID, which Constantine’s plan would eliminate. Essentially, it would create a true Ballard-to-West Seattle line (which no previous plans would do) while preserving connections to Chinatown from the east and south.

Compared to the “north-south” proposal, Balducci said, “this option would mean less out of direction travel and better connections for South and East riders [and] retain a one seat ride from South Seattle, South King and Pierce to the CID.”

Either of the two north-south options would eliminate the “Midtown” station, which would come the closest of any station to the dense First Hill neighborhood—echoing a similar decision in 2005, when the Sound Transit board voted to scrap a long-planned station in the neighborhood, a decision that eventually produced the First Hill streetcar.

“If Midtown Station goes away, then they need to understand that what they’ve done is eliminate the highest ridership station in all of ST3 and that is going to require that they mitigate the hell out of it,” said Transportation Choices Coalition Alex Hudson, who noted that many of the people who work in First Hill hospitals live south of Seattle and could have used the new light rail line to commute to their jobs. “That’s 15,500 people who were counting on excellent [rail] service and have been paying for it and won’t get it—that’s not small change. That’s a real harm.”

Mitigating for the loss of the Midtown station, which could come in the form of expanded bus or other transit service in the area, will add costs to the project—eating into any savings from eliminating the station, Hudson said.

TCC wants the Sound Transit board to keep an existing option, the Fourth Avenue “shallower” option, on the table; as long as they’re considering an unstudied plan, she said, the board should keep a more thoroughly vetted option on the table. Balducci has introduced a second amendment that would keep that option on the table, and said that since the new Constantine-Harrell plan will require a supplemental environmental impact statement, “we should use that time to also study and improve the 4th option as much as possible. Then we’ll have the ability to make the most informed choice,” Balducci said.

“Before we walk away from the option to have a great transit hub on 4th that could both serve the CID and connect our light rail lines most effectively to each other, Sounder, Amtrak and other modes, I’m asking that the agency look harder at ways to address community concerns,” Balducci added.

It’s unclear whether Balducci and Millar’s proposals will gain traction, or if the Constantine-Harrell plan has so much momentum that it will steamroll efforts to keep other options on the table. The board meets tomorrow at 1:30 pm.

Unions Protest City’s “Insulting” 1 Percent Wage Increase Proposal

By Erica C. Barnett

The Coalition of City Unions, an umbrella group for 11 unions that represent more than 6,000 city employees, is protesting what they call an “insulting” contract proposal from the city, which would raise workers’ wages just 1 percent in 2024, and a maximum of 2.5 percent over the next four years. That’s far less than the rate of inflation, which topped 8 percent in Seattle last year, with higher price increases for basics like groceries (11.3 percent) and housing (10.7 percent).

As a point of comparison, Seattle police officers received a 17 percent pay increase after their last contract negotiation, with retroactive pay increases between 3 and 4 percent a year for the years they worked without a contract. The city council approved hiring bonuses of up to $30,000 for police last year. More recently, city attorney Ann Davison applauded the council and mayor for voting to increase city prosecutors’ pay by 20 percent, saying the boost would “allow us to recruit and hire in order to fully staff our prosecutor positions in the Criminal Division.”

The unions made their initial proposal—a 10.2 percent pay increase—last September. The city came back with its own proposal six months later, three months after the 2022 contracts expired. Union members say they were disappointed by the long period of silence from Mayor Bruce Harrell and his negotiators, and appalled by the lowball counteroffer—especially after Harrell and other city leaders professed their appreciation for essential workers who didn’t have the option to work from home during the pandemic.

Stefan Schmidt, a recreation center coordinator with the Parks and Recreation Department, helped coordinate and run child care centers for pandemic first responders, a job that exposed him to the risk of COVID and meant he couldn’t come into close contact with family members during the early months of the pandemic.

“The impression [Harrell] gave was, this is going to be cooperative, and we’re all going to work together and we’ll come out with something that’s beneficial for both of us,” said Ed Hill, a maintenance supervisor with Seattle City Light. “And when that 1 percent [offer] came out—I mean, it was very, very insulting.”

After working all day at a community center that also provided showers to the public, “I couldn’t come home and hug my dad,” Schmidt said. “And so when we got a 1 percent offer, after being kind of used as the fix-it for just about everything in the pandemic—which, don’t get me wrong, we deeply care about the community—it was just really insulting and felt consistent with feeling used as as a staff member and not appreciated.”

Shomari Anderson, a drainage engineer with the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, has felt the pinch of higher prices for everything from groceries to housing. Recently, after living in Seattle for 13 years, he had to move because he couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore. Seeing the latest contract offer, he said, “I felt as if the mayor and the City Council’s record of supporting essential workers through the pandemic went out the window.”

Aimee Kimball, an engineer at Seattle City Light, said she’s had trouble finding qualified engineers who are willing to work for what the city pays, given the high cost of living in the region. “The last time we put out a posting for two senior engineers, 50 percent of the candidate pool didn’t even have an engineering degree. The rest of them still weren’t qualified, but half of them didn’t even have college degree,” she said.

At the beginning of contract negotiations in September, Mayor Harrell showed up in person to address city union members directly and express his commitment to a collaborative, positive negotiating experience—the first time union leaders can recall a mayor doing so. City employees said Harrell’s gesture of goodwill gave them hope that the city would come back with an offer that reflected the rising cost of living and showed an appreciation for their work over the last few stressful years.

“The impression [Harrell] gave was, this is going to be cooperative, and we’re all going to work together and we’ll come out with something that’s beneficial for both of us,” said Ed Hill, a maintenance supervisor with Seattle City Light. “And when that 1 percent [offer] came out—I mean, it was very, very insulting.” Hill’s team was responsible for “literally keeping the lights on” during the pandemic—a job that became more difficult when more people were at home, putting stress on the system.

“We basically carried the city through the pandemic, and now they just throw 1 percent at us with the attitude that we should be happy that we’re getting anything… like anything over zero is a gain,” Hill said. “But the price of gas has gone up. The price of food has gone up. We still have to eat. I still have to drive to work every day. I still have to feed my myself and my family.”

A spokesman for Harrell’s office declined to comment on the contract proposals, citing ongoing labor negotiations.

The Coalition of City Unions has created an online petition calling on the city council and Harrell to “act with the necessary urgency to provide a fair contract that shows tangible respect for workers.” The petition currently has about 4,200 signatures.

Catriana Hernandez, a 911 dispatcher, says she’ll believe the city appreciates essential workers like her when she sees a contract proposal that includes to a pay increase, not an effective pay cut. “It’s really easy to thank someone verbally and not follow through. Gratitude is like apologies. … I think it’s easy to say it, and it’s harder to make it happen. And that’s where we see if we’re actually appreciated.”

New Housing Not A Major Factor In Tree Loss, Police Alternative Pilot Behind Schedule, Deputy Mayor Says Harrell “Not Interested in Reelection”

1. A new report on Seattle’s tree canopy—a measure of how much of the city is shaded by trees—shows that the amount of tree cover in the city declined by half a percentage point (from 28.6 percent tree cover to 28.1 percent) from 2016 to 2021, the equivalent of 255 acres of tree loss.

The largest portion of this loss was not, however, due to development in single-family neighborhoods, as opponents of new residential density frequently imply, but in the city’s own parks, where 45 percent of the total tree loss occurred, largely because not as many trees were replaced in parks relative to other areas, resulting in a higher percentage of tree canopy loss.

Although “neighborhood residential” (traditional single-family) areas accounted for more than a third of the total canopy over the five years covered by the study, less than 7 percent of tree loss (17  acres) resulted from development in those areas, while development in multifamily areas accounted for another 14 acres of trees lost.

The report does not specify what kind of development happened in these areas or whether it involved increases in density (as opposed to land owners building bigger houses), but it does conclude: “most trees in [neighborhood residential areas] were likely lost due to reasons other than development.”

So why did Seattle’s residential areas lose so many trees? According to the report, the reasons “may include disease or hazard risk, storm events, or aging trees at the end of their lifespan. Trees are also removed to accommodate other uses (e.g., solar arrays, views, gardens, etc.).” In other words: In addition to natural losses, homeowners are removing trees on their own property for reasons that have nothing to do with housing.

Tree canopy losses were greater, as a percentage of the overall canopy in 2016 compared to 2021, in areas with more people of color, lower incomes, and less access to opportunity, including the Rainier Valley and South Park. These areas have fewer trees already, and lost ground over the past year despite efforts to plant trees in historically under-forested areas. It’s unclear from the report exactly why this happened, although the report notes construction of light rail at Northgate accounted for a significant portion of the overall loss in these “environmental justice” areas—an example that contrasts an environmentally positive project, light rail, with the trees it displaced.

As for why the city’s parks are losing trees at a faster rate than others areas, the report says the methodology researchers used might not capture undergrowth, and that newly planted trees take a long time to grow and show up in tree canopy assessments. According to a Parks Department spokeswoman, “it’s not that the rate of replacement has been slow, but the growth from those replacement trees is slow as they have more evergreen trees that start from seedlings and take time to show in the canopy. Loss of a tree is an event, it’s sudden and immediately noticed. Growth is a process that occurs over time and regaining canopy can take many years.”

Overall, Seattle has just over 28 percent tree coverage—hundreds of acres shy of the city’s goal of 30 percent tree canopy by 2037.

2. City council members expressed frustration earlier this week that the mayor’s office is several months behind schedule establishing a small alternative response pilot program for some emergency calls that don’t require a police response. As PubliCola reported last year, the mayor’s office and council signed a “term sheet” laying out steps, and deadlines, for a pilot program that would send civilian responders to some calls, including “person down” calls and wellness checks.

The term sheet included a number of milestones that were supposed to culminate in a pilot program, including a comprehensive set of policy recommendations, a budget, and a final plan that was supposed to launch in January. During a meeting of the council’s public safety committee, a council central staffer said “part of the delay has been the hiring and onboarding” of new Community Safety and Communications Center director Rebecca Gonzales, whom Harrell nominated to lead the city’s 911 dispatch office in January.

But committee chair Lisa Herbold said Gonzales’ appointment should have no impact on the long-planned pilot. “There is absolutely no reason, I believe that we need to delay these conversations about a pilot any longer, regardless of the status of the of the new director coming on,” Herbold said. “We’ve got a lot of good people who’ve been working on this for a while—for several years now— and we need to make sure that we’re driving this forward and creating some momentum where there currently appears to be very little.”

Councilmember Andrew Lewis, the council’s most vocal advocate for an alternative response system, echoed Herbold’s comments. “If we have another hearing like this, where the timelines are so off, and the progress is so on the surface unclear at the next hearing on this topic, I would be supportive of reevaluating the process entirely to find a different path for achieving these goals,” Lewis said. “I just think the sense of urgency around this needs to be much, much higher from all of the parties involved.”

“[Mayor Harrell is] not interested in reelection, which is so exciting, and so he doesn’t make decisions out a fear to get reelected.”—Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, speaking about the city’s work on homelessness at a national conference this week

3. Seattle Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington caused a bit of a stir at the National Alliance for Ending Homelessness’ annual conference in Oakland this week, when she commented on stage that she appreciated working with Mayor Bruce Harrell because “he’s not interested in reelection.” Some in the room interpreted the comment as a statement that Harrell won’t seek reelection after one term, while others said it was more ambiguous.

The context for Washington’s comment was a list of things Seattle is doing right on homelessness; she was talking about why “relationships matter.”

“He’s not interested in reelection, which is so exciting,” Washington said, “and so he doesn’t make decisions out a fear to get reelected. He literally said to me one day—I said, ‘Hey, if we end this contract, it’s gonna be all over the newspapers,’ and he said, ‘I don’t make decisions that way, I make decisions out of doing the right thing.'”

Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Washington “was saying that the mayor makes decisions not based on what is popular, or in other words what will support a re-election campaign, but based on what is the right thing to do.”

Maybe Metropolis: The Vibe of the City is the ’90s

Aerial photo of Wallingford in 1969
Image via Seattle Municipal Archives; Creative Commons 2.0 license

by Josh Feit

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s State of the City speech should have urbanists worried. Listening to his address last week made it clear the mayor wants to counter the recent emergence of a new generation of urbanists. This new pro-housing movement, defined by an unprecedented alliance between social justice activists, developers, environmentalists, labor advocates, and transit nerds, has chalked up a series of policy wins in recent years. And judging by Harrell’s speech, he’s trying to stall their momentum.

That might seem like a strange thing to say after Harrell, previewing his “Downtown Activation Plan,” used the speech to paint this colorful urbanist picture: “It may mean a linear arts-entertainment-culture district that connects downtown with multiple neighborhoods or identifying a 24/7 street, a stretch of several blocks where you can find a restaurant, bar, grocery, or your favorite clothing boutique at any hour of the day.”

I’ll be the first to argue that shops close too early in Seattle (especially its pizza places) and that a thrumming nightlife is at the top of any credible urbanist agenda. But Harrell’s limited, “stretch-of-several-blocks” urbanism represents the reverse of what the new movement has been pressing for. Today’s urbanists want to move away from using the downtown core (and a few scattered urban hubs) as an offset for our city’s otherwise suburban and unsustainable land use patterns. Unfortunately, by looking backward to the old downtown-centric model of city building, Harrell is giving cover to single family preservationists who benefit financially when the city limits opportunities for increased density, amenities, and housing citywide.

Erica hilariously titled her report on Harrell’s state of the city speech “The State of the City is Vibes.”   Credit where credit is due, ECB—it’s a headline for the ages. But I’d like to amend it. It seems to me that under Harrell’s vision, the state of the city is: The ‘90s. Specifically, 1995.

Here’s what I mean: The idea that a city’s cultural electricity (and its housing, but more on that in a second) should be focused in the center city is a remnant of Seattle’s 1995 comprehensive plan. That shortsighted plan stuck us with the land use model we have today—one that relegates mixed-use, urban spaces to downtown and tiny slivers of the city along busy, wide arterial streets.

That 1995 model is the root cause of our current gentrification spiral and affordable housing crisis. It puts a crunch on supply by prohibiting apartments, condos, and storefronts almost everywhere. With the neighborhood planning process coming up again next year, Harrell’s retro impulse to focus on downtown put urbanists on notice that efforts to add affordable housing beyond the downtown core or a few scattered urban hubs is anathema to his vision. His speech led with a big pitch about the significance of downtown while failing to acknowledge any other Seattle neighborhood—nor the controversial, classist residential zoning rules that prevail across most of the city.

Unfortunately, by looking backward to the old downtown-centric model of city building, Harrell is giving cover to single family preservationists who benefit financially when the city limits opportunities for increased density, amenities, and housing citywide.

A newly ascendant YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movement set on reforming this neighborhood inequity has been gaining political momentum in recent years; they won a slight upzone in Seattle’s supposedly inviolable single-family zones in 2019 and, later that same year, removed steep barriers to building accessory dwelling units in residential zones. They’ve also sparked a once unheard-of social justice/development alliance in Olympia that’s currently pushing for statewide upzones. Most notably, they’ve been turning out at city hall and neighborhood meetings in organized numbers that rival the once-dominant NIMBYs.

In what seemed like an effort to curb this urbanist momentum and hijack YIMBY talking points, Harrell talked about downtown the way pro-housing urbanists have been talking about the city as a whole. Seizing on office vacancies as an opportunity to address the housing shortage, Harrell promoted “bold action” downtown which “may mean changing our zoning codes to convert excess unused office space into housing. We need more housing options,” he said. “Let’s make downtown affordable for everyone who wants to live there.”

I’m all for converting excess, unused office space into housing, but a plurality of Seattle’s affordable housing, 35 percent, is already located downtown. Putting more housing there hardly constitutes “bold action.” It would actually be bold to challenge the status quo and change the zoning that needs to change: the exclusive rules in Seattle’s leafy, outlying neighborhoods where multifamily apartments, including low-density fourplexes and sixplexes, are prohibited. As for allowing greater flexibility, that too is needed in the outlying neighborhoods; we need to allow more commercial uses in our residential-only zones.  If the pandemic has taught us anything about urban life, it’s that amenities traditionally reserved for “urban” zones actually fit right into “neighborhood character” elsewhere in the city.

In his state of the city speech Harrell tied his urban hopes solely, and precariously, to downtown.

The mayor’s emphasis on downtown undermines the renaissance afoot in Seattle’s neighborhoods, where urban energy like expanded outdoor seating at local cafes and more pedestrian-oriented streets are becoming the norm. That energy is on the verge of moving Seattle away from its 30-year-old planning model that has stifled economic diversity in our neighborhoods. While density was once the third rail of politics, it was notable in 2021’s election cycle not only that moderators at every candidate forum included a question about citywide upzones, but that nearly every candidate signaled support. Harrell said there is already enough “zoning capacity” in the city to house everyone who needs housing—another vintage ’90s argument that ignores the exclusionary reality on the ground.

In his speech last week, Harrell tied his urban hopes solely, and precariously, to downtown: “I am very pleased that employers like Amazon recognize coming back to work downtown is a great thing,” he said. The very next day the Washington Post hit with the reality check that employees themselves weren’t interested. And that same day, the Puget Sound Business Journal reported a 30 percent drop in demand for Seattle office space since January 2022, running a story about downtown occupancy that featured this alarming quote from a recent report on downtown commercial real estate: “There will be no great return. Seattle’s lights will not just turn back on again. We thought this in 2020 and we were wrong. Too much time has passed.”

Downtown is an important part of the city, but two emergent trends—the recent activation of Seattle’s other neighborhoods and the need to reimagine our downtown for a future with fewer office workers—suggest we need a more  imaginative, beyond-downtown vision as opposed to the 1995 model that tries to sequester density and city life. As the affordable housing crisis persists, it’s disappointing that Mayor Harrell’s only reference to zoning changes in his speech was about creating more housing downtown (where zoning already allows residential housing, by the way). Simultaneously and sadly, he remained silent on the 75 percent of the city where multiplex housing remains illegal.

The State of the City is Vibes

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A downtown encampment mid-sweep

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harrell Promised 2,000 Units of Housing or Shelter by the End of His First Year. He Didn’t Deliver.

Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks at the opening of LIHI’s Dockside Apartments earlier this year, when he also unveiled his homelessness dashboard.

By Erica C. Barnett

When he ran for mayor in 2021, Bruce Harrell vowed to implement key elements of the Compassion Seattle ballot measure, an initiative that would have required the city to create  a total of 2,000 new “units (in addition to those already funded) of emergency or permanent housing with services.” If the measure had passed, Harrell, who supported it, would have been responsible for making the 2,000 new units happen.

After a state appeals court took Compassion Seattle off the table, candidate Harrell wasted no time in urging the city council to adopt key elements of the measure, saying that “the amendment-specified 2000 units of housing is critical to set in motion now.” He also rolled out a “homelessness action plan” that incorporated the 2,000-unit promise, and added that, if elected, he would “identify and begin the process of moving people into 1,000 units of housing within the first 6 months of taking office, and securing an additional 1,000 units by the end of year one.” 

Media outlets reported widely on this bold campaign promise, and the Seattle Times mentioned it as one of their reasons for endorsing Harrell. He even hired Compassion Seattle’s chief architect, former city council member Tim Burgess, as a top policy advisor.

So in his first year as mayor, did Harrell deliver? In a word, no. In a few words, not even close.

In 2022, Harrell did not deliver 2,000 new units of housing, even using the most generous interpretation of that campaign promise.  A detailed look at the 31 developments the administration says it “identified” this year shows that the vast majority were planned and funded before Harrell even took office, including many that former mayor Jenny Durkan hyped with media events and press announcements during her term. 

In fact, Durkan took credit for many of the exact same units the Harrell administration is counting toward their total. In 2021, for example, Durkan announced funding for 840 new housing units, primarily from the city’s 2016 housing levy; those units included LIHI’s Good Shepherd House, which Harrell’s dashboard counts among 1,912 units “identified” between January and September of last year, when the dashboard was last updated.) The following year, PubliCola was on hand when Durkan announced federal funding for several other LIHI projects on the list. 

But let’s say that Harrell, who likes sports metaphors, was just nudging the goalposts a bit—understandable, especially for such an ambitious promise in such a lousy budget year. (I even wrote a column calling Compassion Seattle an “unfunded mandate” that would either fail entirely or “succeed” by funding low-cost shelters instead of real solutions like permanent housing.) And indeed, over the last year, the mayor has suggested that he merely promised to identify 2,000 housing and shelter units, not create 2,000 new ones. As the dashboard puts it: “We have identified 1,912 total units of shelter so far, with only 88 units left to reach our goal of 2,000 units of shelter and housing identified by end of 2022.”

Even by this measure, however, the Harrell Administration can’t claim success.

PubliCola has documented, to the best of our ability, the year or date on which each housing or shelter development on the city’s list was announced. 

A review of these 1,912 units and shelter beds shows that fewer than 300 were newly planned or funded by the city in 2022. What’s more, around 100 shelter beds included on the list have been canceled, including 68 that were supposed to open as part of the abandoned SoDo shelter expansion. The city’s tally, which has not been updated since September, includes 40 high-acuity shelter beds and 28 tiny house-style Pallet shelters toward the total. Neither project is happening.

Candidates often make unrealistic promises to get elected; Compassion Seattle was, according to all the polls at the time, extremely popular, so it made sense for Harrell to incorporate it into his campaign. What’s harder to understand is why more of Harrell’s supporters—who professed to support housing, not just sweeping, people living in parks and city rights-of-way—aren’t asking why he failed to deliver.

The mayor and city council actually cut funding for one of the programs on the list last year. JustCare, the Public Defender Association’s pandemic-era hotel shelter program, would have to shrink from 84 beds to 50 if the PDA hadn’t secured one-time federal funding to make up for the city’s cuts.

Overall, of the 1,912 housing units and shelter beds on the city’s website, PubliCola could only identify 288 that were announced in 2022, after Harrell took office. Most of those—163—are existing apartment buildings that were purchased using emergency federal “rapid acquisition” funds, which allow housing agencies to quickly repurpose market-rate apartments for affordable housing. For example, the Low-Income Housing Institute recently purchased the Dockside Apartments on Greenlake Way North; the property served as a backdrop when Harrell announced the dashboard back in June.

The rest of the “identified” units are traditional permanent supportive housing, emergency shelter, such as tiny houses, and a 35-space RV safe lot. The city has tried and failed repeatedly to open similar parking lots for RV residents in the past; the most recent attempt was at the SoDo shelter site, and King County took it off the table under neighborhood pressure long before deciding to abandon the shelter expansion altogether.

Candidates often make unrealistic promises to get elected; Compassion Seattle was, according to all the polls at the time, extremely popular, so it made sense for Harrell to incorporate it into his campaign. What’s harder to understand is why more of Harrell’s supporters—who professed to support housing, not just sweeping, people living in parks and city rights-of-way—aren’t asking why he failed to deliver.

Harrell’s office did not immediately respond to questions sent early Tuesday afternoon; we’ll update this post if we hear back.

Homelessness Authority Rolls Out 2023 Budget and Five-Year Plan to Shelter and House 62,000

Slide from KCRHA presentation: More than 62,000 people in King County experienced homelessness at least once in 2022.
Source: King County Regional Homelessness Authority Five-Year Plan Presentation

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority released the agency’s 2023 budget this week along with a long-awaited five-year plan that agency director Marc Dones said will put the region on a path toward sheltering, then housing, tens of thousands of people over the next several years. But some elements of the road map remain unclear, including how the authority plans to fund its ambitious plans.

The budget KCHRA presented to its implementation and governing boards this week (and which the governing board approved unanimously on Thursday) adds up to $253 million. Much of that total, however, consists of pass-through funds, such as $28 million for the Housing and Essential Needs assistance program for people with disabilities, one-time federal COVID relief funding, and leftover money from this year’s budget.

The budget also includes more than $49 million in grants from the state to resolve encampments in state-owned highway rights-of-way, plus $1.2 million the Seattle City Council added to its KCRHA budget contribution this year to move encampment outreach from the city’s HOPE team to the homelessness authority.

The primary funding sources for the KCHRA are the city of Seattle and King County, which both declined to fund most of the KCRHA’s big budget requests this year. To add services, the authority has turned to funds that comes with strings attached—like the $49 million state contribution for highway cleanup, or a $5 million donation from downtown businesses for cleaning up encampments downtown.

“There’s really not a lot of discretion in our budget, because we’re funded by Seattle and King County. So how are we going to get to a place where we actually have a revenue stream that we can use in our way that we want to use it that implements that five year plan and that vision?”—KCRHA implementation board member John Chelminiak

This year’s legislative session could offer new revenue sources—this week, Gov. Jay Inslee said he would seek voter approval to spend $4 billion to build or preserve about 10,000 affordable housing units statewide—but the outcome of such a vote is far from certain, and it’s unclear how much of that funding would end up going toward homelessness in King County.

“There’s really not a lot of discretion in our budget, because we’re funded by Seattle and King County,” implementation board member (and former Bellevue councilmember) John Chelminiak said Wednesday. “And they’re basically telling us, as you would expect them to, how to spend the money that they’re allocating to us. So how are we going to get to a place where we actually have a revenue stream that we can use in our way that we want to use it that implements that five year plan and that vision?”

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell raised similar questions at the agency’s governing board meeting the following day. (The implementation board, made up of stakeholders and people with lived experience of homelessness from around the region, is responsible for making decisions that the governing board, which includes elected officials, is supposed to adopt.) The agency’s ambitious five-year plan, Harrell noted, is “going to come with a price tag, and … we’re going to have to have that conversation” about new sources of funding.

The KCRHA plans to release the full details of that plan between now and January, when each board will meet again. A PowerPoint presentation about the plan focused on seven broad goals (among them: “dramatically reducing unsheltered homelessness,” ending homelessness among families, youth, and young adults, and restructuring the homeless service system) but contained few details about how the KCRHA plans to achieve them.

One area of ongoing debate is how much effort the agency should focus on getting people into shelter (“temporary housing”) versus permanent housing. While the Housing Command Center, spearheaded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, is focused on moving people living unsheltered downtown into permanently housing quickly, the KCRHA now estimates that temporary housing will make up about 43 percent of the region’s need over the next five years.

The KCRHA now estimates it will need to find temporary shelter for 23,000 people a year, along with 48,000 permanent housing units, and that the gap between the existing system and the current need amounts to about 19,000 temporary beds and more than 45,000 permanent homes.

At Wednesday’s implementation board meeting, Chelminiak said that unless the authority can show it’s reducing the number of people on the streets, “I don’t think anyone is going to give us any money to spend.” But Sara Rankin, a Seattle University professor and longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness, said it was more important to offer people meaningful, lasting places to go than “prioritize expediency and the fastest, cheapest ways of moving people out of sight without any long-term sense of what’s going to happen to them.”

The need for both housing and temporary shelter, according to the KCRHA, has grown dramatically. According to the five-year plan presentation‚ 62,000 people in King County were homeless at some point in 2022—a 50 percent increase from an estimated 40,000 who were homeless at some point last year. According to a KCRHA spokeswoman, the 62,000 figure is “the number that the state Department of Commerce is using for the housing modeling that they’re doing for the state and for King County.”

PubliCola has reached out to Commerce for more information and we should have an update Monday.

The KCRHA now estimates it will need to find temporary shelter for 23,000 people a year, along with 48,000 permanent housing units, and that the gap between the existing system and the current need amounts to about 19,000 temporary beds and more than 45,000 permanent homes.