Tag: King County Regional Homelessness Authority

With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates and city council members are putting pressure on Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city’s Human Services Department to move forward with three new tiny house villages—groups of small, shed-like shelters for people experiencing homelessness—this year, before the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) takes over the city’s homelessness-related contracts in 2022.

The short-term (and at this point, probably quixotic) goal is to convince Durkan and HSD’s short-staffed homelessness division to commit to moving forward with all three villages before the city’s homelessness contracts move to the KCRHA the end of the year. The long-term goal, which may be equally quixotic, is to demonstrate strong community support for tiny house villages in the face of strong opposition at the new authority, whose leader, Marc Dones, has no allegiance to what has become conventional wisdom at the city.

Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council adopted (and the mayor signed) legislation accepting $2 million in state COVID relief funding to stand up three new tiny house villages and setting aside an additional $400,000 to operate the villages once they open—the Seattle Rescue Plan. Since then, HSD has declined to issue a request for proposals to build the villages, arguing that the council doesn’t have a long-term plan to operate the villages after this year. The longer HSD waits, the more likely it is that the job of deciding whether to stand up additional tiny house villages will fall to the regional authority.

“I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who … wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

On Wednesday, village supporters arranged themselves next to a mock land-use sign for project “SLU-145” to make their case for a new village on a long-vacant parcel of City Light-owned land a block away. On hand: LIHI director Sharon Lee, City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Teresa Mosqueda, and several dozen residents of the nearby Mirabella retirement community, who have raised $143,000 for the effort.

What we need is for those checks to be written now. That is in law. We cannot grind to a halt in the very moment that community needs us to be standing up shelters and services,” Mosqueda said. “By supporting the deployment, now, of the additional three tiny house villages funded and signed into law by the mayor through the Seattle Rescue Plan, we can support these immediate solutions and remain committed to building affordable housing and creating additional services.”

Lewis, who rolled out a plan to build 12 new tiny house villages called “It Takes A Village” earlier this year, told PubliCola he was frustrated that the city hasn’t added a single tiny house village all year during “the worst homelessness crisis that we’ve ever faced.”

“Tiny home villages may become our de-facto community response—warehousing and dehumanizing people into our own entrenched version of shanty towns, favelas, and slums.”—King County Lived Experience Coalition statement

“We have 295 tiny homes right now,” Lewis said. “And maybe we don’t need 2,000 tiny homes, but we certainly need more than 295. We’ve got over 4,000 people in the city who are experiencing homelessness right now. It’s just frustrating.”

Contacted after the press conference, Mosqueda added, “I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who saw growing homelessness during a deadly pandemic, and have my legacy be that I rejected funding, that I wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”

Tiny houses evolved out of ordinary tent encampments, as residents of both authorized and unauthorized tent cities set up semi-permanent structures, many of them no bigger than small garden sheds, to provide additional shelter from the elements. Over time, the encampments—now city-funded, standardized, and rebranded as “villages”—proliferated, spurred on by LIHI and supportive elected officials, including both council members and, at one point, Durkan herself.

Although tiny house villages are commonplace, they have detractors—including KCHRA director Dones, who has made no secret of their skepticism about the village model of shelter. Dones, a former consultant to King County who developed the model for the regional authority, has argued that people tend to stay in tiny house villages for too long compared to other shelter options, and has suggested that group homes and transitional housing may be more effective at moving people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing. Continue reading “With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year”

As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain

Via LIHI.

By Erica C. Barnett

This post has been updated. 

Seattle’s ongoing expansion of “tiny house villages” could stall out as the new regional homelessness authority takes over responsibility for King County’s homelessness system. The RHA’s director, Marc Dones, told PubliCola this week that the “proliferation” of tiny houses needs to end, and that short-term approaches like shelter and sanctioned encampments should be replaced by new investments in housing construction and acquisition, along the lines of King County’s “Health Through Housing” program.

Earlier this year, the city council voted to fund six new tiny house villages using a combination of city funds (for operations) and COVID relief dollars from the state (for capital costs). But so far, the Human Services Department has not published a request for proposals (RFP) for those villages—the first step for approved funding to get out the door. Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) director Sharon Lee says HSD seems to be slow-walking the application process until the regional authority takes over all the city’s homelessness contracts at the end of the year.

“They say it’s up to the regional authority whether there are new tiny house villages at the end of the year, which makes no sense to us” because the state funding is already earmarked for this purpose, Lee told PubliCola.

UPDATE: HSD said on Friday that it will not put out a request for proposals to build the new tiny house villages until they get more guidance from the new regional authority at a meeting of the RHA’s implementation board in September. HSD spokeswoman Lily Rehrmann said that since the money the state provided is “one-time capital dollars… While the one-time funding is important, providers need to know that on-going operations are committed in order to invest the time and resources into responding to an RFP that, as a general rule, requires the provider to propose a program model, staffing structure and budget.”

Specifically, Rehrmann said, providers need to be able to demonstrate where three years’ worth of funding for operations would come from; since the state funding is only for capital costs, Rehrmann said, that would be impossible. “HSD will continue to work closely with the KCRHA on the successful transition of the homelessness program investments in 2022 and on the stand up of the new shelter that has received full funding (for both stand up and ongoing operations and services) in 2021,” she said.”

This “full funding” stipulation has been an ongoing source of contention between HSD and the city council, and not just on tiny house villages: Council members, including budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have argued that the council only budgets on an annual basis, so it’s impossible to guarantee ongoing funds for any project; that doesn’t prevent the city from funding all sorts of things that require some capital investment.

Beneath the debate over timing and jurisdiction is a larger question: Should the region continue building new tiny house villages, which provide long-term shelter to several hundred people, or focus on other, more permanent investments? RHA director Marc Dones says the answer to this perennial shelter-vs.-housing debate is obvious: The region needs more housing more than it needs more shelter.

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter. What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.” —King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones

“The focus that we need to have is on housing, and I simply cannot stress that enough,” they said. “Shelter is not permanent, and we are locked into a proliferation of shelter options rather than a proliferation of housing options and we must course correct on that. Tiny homes, as a subset of a broader shelter strategy, make sense, but they’re not an end point and we shouldn’t proliferate them as they are.”

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter,” Dones continued. “What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.”

Instead, Dones wants to focus on permanent housing and “bridge housing”—temporary group housing for people who need supportive services in the short term as they transition to either a private-market apartment or permanent supportive housing. “People have had a lot of conversations in the last couple of months about a right to shelter, and I think that is not consistent with our community values. We need to have a right to housing.”

City council member Andrew Lewis says he agrees with Dones that permanent housing should be the region’s ultimate goal. But he disagrees that housing should be the only, or even paramount, priority right now. Pointing to the proliferation of unauthorized encampments across the city, Lewis, who represents downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, said, “I’m not going to go to my constituents and say, ‘Look, deal with that encampment on your street—or, heck, I’m not going to go to my unhoused constituents and say, ‘Eventually we’re going to build housing somewhere, but until then have fun living in your tent.’ We need to be able to offer people something better while we are building the thing they really need, which is some kind of permanent housing.”

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While people living unsheltered often balk at the idea of moving into a congregate shelter, including less-crowded “enhanced” shelters like the Downtown Emergency Service Center-run Navigation Center, they often will accept placements in tiny house villages, which offer more privacy and security than other types of shelter. Lee, from LIHI, said it’s “misguided to be attacking tiny houses when tiny houses are the preferred option for people who are camping out or sleeping out. We go to any encampment, and every place we go, people say, ‘We want a tiny house.'” 

But the things that make tiny house villages desirable may also contribute to the fact that people stay in tiny houses longer than any other type of shelter. Although the villages have a fairly strong track record for moving people into housing (between 27 and 65 percent of tiny house residents eventually move into housing, according to King County’s most recent performance data, compared to a 15 percent average across all types of emergency shelter), people tend to live in them for months or even years—far longer than the regional goal of 90 days. Continue reading “As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain”

Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

A Wednesday city council briefing on the city’s 2021 response to homelessness exposed deep gaps between the city council’s expectations and what the executive branch says it can and will deliver, and revealed stark differences between the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness so far and what the new leader of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has in mind for the future.

At the meeting (a briefing at the city council’s homelessness committee), city and county leaders updated council members on how the city is spending homelessness dollars this year and what the regional authority’s plans are for 2022 and beyond.

The big news at Wednesday’s meeting, which included presentations from the Human Services Department and King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones, was that HSD’s homelessness division has finally signed off on funding 89 additional hotel-based shelter beds through JustCare, a Public Defender Association-led program that provides intensive case management and support for people living in encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District. Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly said JustCare is too expensive compared to other shelter options, so the announcement was a significant step forward for the program.

The other piece of news, which we reported earlier this week, was that more people have “enrolled” in rapid rehousing programs at two city-funded hotels than council members had expected—about 120, between the Chief Seattle Club-operated King’s Inn and the Low Income Housing Institute-run Executive Pacific. But that update comes with a significant asterisk. “Enrolling” in rapid rehousing simply means, at a minimum, that a person has filled out forms to participate in a rapid rehousing program, not that they actually have a plan to move into an apartment using a rapid rehousing subsidy.

How and whether to expand the scope and basic purpose of rapid rehousing was one of many contentious issues on the table Wednesday. By HUD definition, and under existing King County guidelines, rapid rehousing is a form of short-term assistance (up to 12 months) that diminishes over time until the recipient is able to pay full rent on their own. Members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of community advisors with direct experience with homelessness, have pushed the city and the regional authority to authorize longer-term use of rapid rehousing subsidies—up to 24 months—to enable people who may need permanent supportive housing to get off the street while new housing gets built.

This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“Rapid rehousing is not seen as an adequate intervention for folks that are experiencing chronic homelessness, but rapid rehousing is an effective intervention,” Lamont Green, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition, said during public comment. “It’s a great option as bridge housing. … There’s just not enough permanent supportive housing and there’s not enough affordable housing.”

The city has funding to expand rapid rehousing this year thanks to federal COVID assistance, but neither the city nor the county authority has a plan yet to extend rapid rehousing past this year or to double the length of assistance.

Tess Colby, a longtime homelessness advisor to the mayor who recently took over as head of HSD’s homelessness division, said, “We share, and support wholeheartedly, the authority’s priority to use the vouchers to help people move from the streets to housing, and to help shelters, villages, improve their exits to permanent housing by making vouchers available to longer term stayers.” This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“This is the first time I’ve heard publicly, because we have been pushing this point, that there needs to be a course correction on the rapid rehousing so it can be more than a year, and that you have to allow people who have zero income to [participate],” LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola. “We’ve been hammering on that for a year—the city of Seattle has $9 million [in grants] for rapid rehousing and it’s hardly being used. This is the first time that we’re having this breakthrough—that they’re to respond to the real needs” of chronically homeless people.

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Dones and Colby also broached a concept called “Moving On” that, they said, could open up more permanent supportive housing beds, for people using rapid rehousing subsidies as a form of “bridge housing” and others who need more supportive services than the private or subsidized housing markets can provide. The idea is that people who decide they no longer need or want permanent supportive housing can move on to other types of housing with less intensive supports, freeing up their units for new permanent supportive housing residents.

In Seattle, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out, permanent supportive housing is often praised specifically for its permanence—97 percent of people in permanent supportive housing stay there, making it one of the region’s most successful bulwarks against homelessness. However, other cities such as Los Angeles have integrated “Moving On” strategies into their response to homelessness.

“I’m happy to explore that a little bit more,” homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola, but “I wouldn’t want a program that is creating an expectation that you would have to move on from your permanent supportive placement.” In any case, Lewis said, the idea that Seattle could free up permanent housing slots by moving people out seems several steps in the future. “I feel like we need a much shorter-term tactical plan to deal with the issue at hand, which is rampant chronic homelessness that is not being addressed. I don’t feel like we have this permanent supportive housing bottleneck and we need to address it.”

The real “bottleneck,” Lewis said, is the lack of shelter for people living in encampments around the city. But the solution for this problem, too, is up for debate. Council members, including Lewis and council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have strongly supported tiny house villages as an alternative to traditional encampments where people can stabilize and move on to more permanent housing options. Continue reading “Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness”

Regional Homelessness Director Marc Dones: “The Driver of Homelessness Is Economic.”

By Erica C. Barnett

In March, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority appointed Marc Dones, a peripatetic homelessness policy consultant, to lead the agency charged with creating a unified, regional approach to homelessness. The authority was already seven months behind schedule when Dones was appointed, and their short-term task will be hiring dozens of staff and migrating hundreds of contracts with homeless service providers from Seattle’s Human Services Department to the RHA—a mundane but massive task.

In the long term, the agency is supposed to adopt a truly regional approach to homelessness, bridging the gaps that have long existed between different parts of the county—urban, suburban, wealthy, working-class, exurban, and rural. This policy framework could have profound impacts on how cities prioritize spending, their response to encampments, and whether they focus on quick “fixes” like shelter or longer-term solutions like housing subsidies (and what kind.) I

Dones, who’s lived in Ohio, New Jersey, Boston, New York, and Michigan, is new to Seattle, but not to the regional authority, whose basic outlines they shaped as a consultant to King County in 2019. Dones has said their first priority is hiring up staff for the authority and moving all of HSD’s contracts to the new agency by the end of this year—an ambitious timeline, to say the least. PubliCola sat down with Dones last week to talk about their approach to homelessness, the magnitude of the problem in King County, and whether a “regional” approach can work in a region where there’s so much disagreement about the basics, like what causes homelessness and how to fix it.

PubliCola: This region has shifted its approach to homelessness many times in the last 10 years. We got away from the idea that people need to transition slowly from unsheltered to housed, but replaced it with the equally extreme idea that almost everyone just needs a short-term subsidy to get them on their feet until they can pay for a market-rate apartment on their own. Now we’re somewhere in the middle, acknowledging that not all unhoused people have the same needs but still using the same menu of options. Do you think the region’s current understanding of the causes and cures for homelessness is correct, or are we still falling short?

Marc Dones: I think we’re getting there. There’s still a lot of discourse around substance use and behavioral health that is not statistically correct. The driver of homelessness is economic, and when you when you do population segmentation, only between 15 and 20 percent of people experiencing homelessness have severe behavioral health or substance use issues. The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing. We have a segment that does have health concerns, but from my perspective, we need to be centered on the economics first and foremost, and thinking about how do we essentially create housing options for folks in the zero to 30 percent space.

“The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing.”

I think that where we are now, I hope, is recognizing that it’s a menu, not just “do the one thing.” People need options, and not every person needs the same stuff. And so we need to be personalizing how we are doing our work at sort of all levels, both through program design and the regional plan. If Spotify can create these bespoke playlists based on a couple things I toss into it every couple months, then we as system administrators can also seek to get to the same level of personalization and curation. Not through algorithms, but through human-centered design and dignity-centered work.

Government actors often talk about the need for better data and by-name lists of all people experiencing homelessness and the services they’re accessing i the system. Can you give a concrete example of how better data or an improved by-name list would improve the life of an unhoused person?

When I talk about the by-name list that I want us to have, it’s not just a list of names. I want us to know who’s out there, where they are, what are their needs, and what’s our plan. So I am really thinking about a database where we are really able to say on a granular and person by person level, here’s what this person needs. And I think that that the data itself does not necessarily improve the delivery of the service. I think that what the data is really going to help us do is appropriately identify and advocate for the right amount of funding. That, for me, is where I see data improving our capacity.

I’ll also say that the ability to gather that data is not just about asking people more questions. We really are trying to take an approach that is relational in its focus. And so we’re really trying to think about how we develop and deploy a peer navigation workforce that provides supports for folks for from the lens of, “Hey, I’ve experienced homelessness.”

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Peer navigation has has really been efficacious in the behavioral health space and in the recovery space, and in the violence space. We haven’t really leaned into it in in the homelessness and housing space. And I don’t know why. But I think that the Lived Experience Coalition and other folks who have experienced homelessness have indicated a hunger to be able to do that kind of work. And we haven’t really acknowledged that or provided pathways for them to do it. And so we’re really keen on listening to that request and activating it. We really want to want to step away from invasive, repetitive ways of getting that information, and situate all of it inside relational architecture and trust.

What will that look like in practice, in terms of contracting and the way that money gets spent and the way that people get hired? What kind of changes can we expect to see in the homeless service system?

The first big shift will be that, moving into 2022, the authority will be the contract issuer. The city contracts will sunset and the county contracts will be migrated to us as well. And the authority will issue 2022 contracts. From that point on, we will also be the policy lead and helping to navigate the difficulties that arise. In ‘22, we will develop a whole system rebid that we’ll put out in the summer. And then in ’23, we’ll have a whole new system,  full stop, very night and day, I suspect.

Alongside that, a third piece of business that we’re developing is around what we’re calling bridge housing. We have identified that there’s a gap in the system—we have the permanency of permanent supportive housing and we have shelter, but we don’t have a lot of stuff really in between. And so from a systems perspective, what that means is that the waiting lists for a lot of that stuff can be very long—sometimes many, many years.

“Administratively what we’ve said to people is, ‘You can choose to wait in shelter, or you can choose to wait outside.’ And that’s not acceptable.”

And so what that means is that even if we never said it out loud, administratively what we’ve said to people is, “You can choose to wait in shelter, or you can choose to wait outside.” And that’s not acceptable. We need to have something that is permanent, that is housing, and that allows people to have stability and to have lives while whatever the thing that they are waiting for is coming online. We really need to have something that is in the middle.

I really want to be clear when I say it needs to be not time-limited. How long a person can be there shouldn’t be dependent on how long it will take them to get to the thing that is their thing. Or if they identify another pathway. If they get there, spend a year, and they’re like, ‘Actually, you know, I don’t think I need that supportive housing, I got this job, or I’m gonna move in with my whatever,’ they can choose to leave. There will be no “Oh, you have 24 months.”

Dow Constantine has suggested that the hotels the county is purchasing with Health Through Housing dollars will be one-stop shops for services, including connections to permanent supportive housing elsewhere, treatment, and other services that aren’t necessarily covered by the tax. Do you think this approach is enough to put a substantial dent in the problem, and have you seen it work elsewhere on the scale the county is talking about (1300 vouchers, 1600 hotel rooms, and 500 new enhanced shelter spaces all told)?

What we are looking at is not necessarily hotel/motel acquisition, but more at single- and multifamily acquisition as a strategy. But I do I agree with the fundamentals of the county position, that that does begin to get us towards scale. One of the things that that we often say on our team is that when we are talking about solutions, we have to be talking about thousands every time. We can never really be talking about hundreds, because the rough estimate is that there are about 15,000 people in the county who probably need support from our agency in some way, shape, or form. And so we really always have to be saying 2,000, 3,000, 4,000. Continue reading “Regional Homelessness Director Marc Dones: “The Driver of Homelessness Is Economic.””

Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?

King County Executive Dow Constantine

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine drew his first significant challenger this year in state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), who’s running at the three-term incumbent from the left. So it would be easy to conclude that Constantine’s big push to announce the purchase of hotels around the county for housing and shelter—five since May, including three in the last three weeks—is timed to capture support and votes in the August 3 primary election, paving the way for yet another big win in November.

And maybe it is. But the purchases also represent a major shift in policy for the region, one that could make a noticeable dent in the number of people sleeping outdoors across the county. The first big difference from previous policy: The county is buying, not renting, the buildings, using revenues from a new countywide sales tax, branded Health Through Housing, to fund the purchases and pay for ongoing services for the people who will live in the former hotel rooms.

That means that unlike the city of Seattle, which is renting two hotels for ten months, the county’s placements won’t come with an end date, creating flexibility for people to stay there for a few weeks to years, depending on their needs.

“Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.” —King County Executive Dow Constantine

“It is not intended to be the forever home for everyone who comes here,” Constantine said during a press tour of a newly purchased Holiday Inn Express in North Seattle earlier this month. “What we want is for people to be able to move past this kind of assistance and onto more self sufficiency.” But, he added, “Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. …If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.”

Capital costs (purchasing and retrofitting the buildings to serve as long-term shelter and housing) will make up, at minimum, 60 percent of spending on the hotels, with the rest reserved for behavioral health and “housing-related services” under the legislation that authorized King County to impose the tax. “It’s one thing to purchase the property, which is an expensive endeavor,” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said during a Monday press briefing inside a 102-room former Clarion Inn the county just purchased in that city. “But more important, after that, is to ensure that those services continue.” 

The second difference is that the hotels are opening all over the region, not just in Seattle—including in cities that have adopted policies that are starkly at odds with the concept of regionalism, such as Renton’s efforts to ban emergency shelter and Auburn’s vote to criminalize sleeping in public spaces. The hotels are generally in areas that already allow hotels or housing, which means they won’t be subject to the kind of lengthy zoning debates that can doom projects that serve unsheltered people.

The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

Whether the hotel purchases represent a true change of heart by suburban cities remains to be seen. The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

The new King County Regional Homelessness authority is already hard at work on multiple “sub-regional plans” for various parts of the county, including South King County, the Eastside, and the Snoqualmie Valley, according to RHA CEO Marc Dones. This suggests that the main “transformation” the new authority will achieve, at least in the short term, is administrative: Seattle’s homelessness division will cease to exist, and the county and city’s efforts (and funding) will move to new authority.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

On Tuesday, Backus said she hoped that there wouldn’t be an excessive number of sub-regional plans, but argued that relatively affordable cities in South King County require a different approach than a large, expensive city like Seattle, particularly when it comes to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.

“I’ve often said that what works in Auburn won’t work in Seattle, and what works in Seattle won’t work in Bellevue,” Backus said. Those differences, she said, include things like the new criminal penalty for sleeping in public spaces—a proposal that likely wouldn’t fly in Seattle, and was controversial even in Auburn. Backus said “members of the Puyallup Tribe” have complained that garbage from encampments in wetlands are getting caught in their fish traps, for example. “It’s not OK. We are damaging the land,” Backus said. Continue reading “Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?”

Fact-Checking Pro-Harrell Mail, Poll Tests Arboreal Opinions, Union’s Role at Homeless Authority Still Unclear

1. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board approved a bare-bones initial staffing plan for the agency on Thursday, but not before a lengthy conversation about the future of labor unions at the new agency—and the future of city employees who currently do the work that’s supposed to move over to the authority next year.

The city’s Homeless Strategy and Investment division, which is part of the Human Services Department, is currently represented by the PROTEC17 union, which also represents county human services workers. KCRHA director Marc Dones has said that they want to hire a whole new team for the agency, and that anyone at the city who wants to keep doing their current work will need to apply for the open positions just like everyone else. Dones has also said that although they support unions in general—saying on Thursday, for example, that “we would be delighted to have one or more unions represent our staff”—union reps and at least one city council member want more reassurances.

On Thursday, Seattle City Council president Lorena González told Dones that the law the city passed agreeing to join the new authority requires “a plan for transitioning staff positions to the new authority.” 

Shaun Van Eyk, the labor representative for PROTEC17, told PubliCola that the union wants any succession plan (an agreement that gives the union the right to represent anyone at the new authority who job falls within the “body of work” that existing union-repped employees are already doing) to include a right of first refusal for employees who remained at their city jobs even as the city repeatedly pushed their layoff dates forward. Although permanent HSI employees have been assured jobs elsewhere in the city, many of the jobs in the division are currently filled by long-term temporary workers, who have no job guarantee once the division shuts down.

“Marc has the ability to not only acknowledge PROTEC17 as the exclusive bargaining representative for those bodies of work, but to offer a right of first refusal for those folks doing that work currently,” Van Eyk said. “Part of my duty in this role is to advocate for our members [who have been] keeping the work going, especially with the delays.” The authority is currently about seven months behind schedule, and it’s far from clear that it will be prepared to take over hundreds of contracts from the city’s homelessness division in January as planned.

The larger question is how the new authority, and Dones in particular, will work with organized labor. King County Executive Dow Constantine appeared unnerved enough by the conversation about succession to add, “If I could just be completely frank, it is unlikely, approaching a zero likelihood, that the county or the city would fund a non-union successor to its union operations. That seems inconceivable.”

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2.  A flyer promoting mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell that arrived in voters’ mailboxes last week included what looked like an unusual disclaimer: “No corporate money paid for this mail piece. Hundreds of local residents gave their own personal money to send you this message.” The mailer, produced by an independent expenditure group called Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future, says Harrell, who played for the Huskies, will “go on the offensive to move Seattle forward.”

The claim is a stretch. While Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future is funded by individual donors, the top donors to the IE are employed by, or in charge of, corporations with billions in assets and a huge vested interest in pro-business policies. Among the biggest contributors: Goodman Real Estate CEO George Petrie and his wife, Alyssa ($100,000); Hunters Capital owner Michael Malone and his wife, Barbara ($25,000); and retired seventh-generation banker Joshua Green III ($10,000).

In fact, the top seven employers of people who contributed to Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future (after “not employed”—people who listed their occupation as “retired” or “homemaker,” many of them formerly in real estate or married to real estate bigwigs, made up $98,000 of the group’s approximately $300,000 in contributions) were real estate firms, accounting for $117,750 of the group’s total contributions. So while it’s true that the people who gave money to the pro-Harrell group are “individuals,” their interests could hardly be more corporate if they were writing checks from their company accounts.

Finally: The IE campaign doesn’t have contributions from “hundreds of local residents”; it doesn’t even have 100 contributions, much less 100 from Seattle. About a third of the 79 donors listed at the Public Disclosure Commission live outside city limits, mostly in Eastside suburbs.

3.  An odd new online poll goes far beyond election questions, asking respondents about everything from their support for a future Seattle-only light rail measure to earthquake safety along I-5 to detailed questions about the city’s tree canopy. It’s unclear who’s behind the poll, but the specific issues it highlights dovetail with priorities articulated by council members Lisa Herbold (using bonds to fund bridge maintenance over bike lanes and sidewalks) and Alex Pedersen (bridge money, plus restricting development by preventing tree removal on private property.) Continue reading “Fact-Checking Pro-Harrell Mail, Poll Tests Arboreal Opinions, Union’s Role at Homeless Authority Still Unclear”

City May Relinquish Control Over Homelessness Contracts; Surveillance Law May Not Cover Facial Recognition; No Plan Yet for Complaints Against 911 Dispatchers

1. After insisting for more than a year that the city needs to retain full authority over homeless outreach and engagement programs, the city has changed its mind, and will reportedly hand outreach over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority along with all the other homeless service contracts currently managed by the Seattle Human Services Department.

KCRHA director Marc Dones told outreach providers that their contracts would move to the new authority at a meeting on Wednesday, several who attended the meeting confirmed. Derrick Belgarde, the director of the Chief Seattle Club, said the belated change makes sense: Outreach “needs some separation from the HOPE team and their efforts.”

Previously, as we’ve reported, Durkan and HSD have argued for keeping outreach, and only outreach, at the city, on the grounds that the HOPE Team (formerly the Navigation Team) needs to have direct access to outreach workers who can connect people in encampments the city removes to shelter and services. The connection between the HOPE team and outreach workers was at the heart of the larger dispute over this year’s contracts, with providers arguing that the new contracts would place them at the “beck and call” of a team that serves as the vanguard for encampment sweeps.

The meeting, led by deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, was called to discuss changes to a set of proposed 2021 contracts that providers said were unacceptable; among other changes, the contracts the city originally sent providers would have required them to do outreach at encampments that the city planned to remove, regardless of whether the community or clients they serve (young adults or Native people, for example) were present.

The new contracts will revert to essentially the same language as the contracts providers signed in 2020. Provisions requiring outreach workers to be on site on the day of encampment removals will be stripped from the new contracts, and the city will greatly reduce the data reporting requirements that some providers found objectionable—eliminating the need, for example, for providers to give the city detailed daily reports on the people they encounter living unsheltered.

Belgarde said he was heartened by Dones’ and Washington’s emphasis on progressive engagement at encampments—focusing first on outreach, and then on more intensive case management, which is the point at which asking more personal questions is appropriate. “They seem to understand why you don’t do it” the first time you meet someone living at an encampment, he said. “It’s traumatizing. You can’t go out there with a pen and pad like you’re a lawyer or the police making notes.”

An HSD spokesperson would confirm only that the department is “in ongoing conversations with providers on a number of items, including what coordinated outreach looks like for both city and county shelter spaces and investments. Additionally, the City is already in conversations with the KCRHA about logistics for the transfer of contracts to the KCRHA. Our primary goal is supporting the ramp up of the authority. HSI will maintain outreach contracts through the end of 2021.”

2. After an investigation by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) into a Seattle police detective’s use of a controversial facial recognition software, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg sent a letter to SPD Interim Chief Adrian Diaz concluding that while the detective used the unapproved technology without permission, it’s unclear whether facial recognition is covered by the surveillance ordinance the city adopted in 2018.

The OPA launched an investigation into South Precinct Detective Nicholas Kartes’ use of Clearview.AI—an artificial intelligence software which bills itself as a kind of Google search for faces, using images scraped from the internet without their owners’ permission—in November, when a civilian watchdog obtained emails showing that Kartes had used the software several times since 2019. At the time, Myerberg told PubliCola that the investigation would hinge on whether Kartes used the software during a criminal investigation, which he said would constitute a clear policy violation and seriously undermine public trust in the department.

In his letter to Diaz on Wednesday, Myerberg wrote that Kartes used Clearview.AI’s search function roughly 30 times since 2019, including for an unclear number of criminal investigations; Kartes didn’t keep records of cases in which he used the technology, so OPA investigators weren’t able to assemble a complete list. According to investigators, Kartes did not inform his superiors that he was using the software. The OPA hasn’t said whether Kartes will face discipline for his use of the unapproved technology.

However, in his letter to Diaz, Myerberg wrote that the city’s surveillance ordinance, which requires city departments to seek the council’s approval of any surveillance technology it intends to use, defines “surveillance” too narrowly to include facial recognition—because software like Clearview.AI does not allow SPD to “observe or analyze the movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals,” Myerberg argued, it may not be addressed by the law.

To deal with the gray area surrounding facial recognition technology, Myerberg recommended that Diaz either create a new surveillance policy that explicitly forbids the use of facial recognition software; he also suggested that Diaz could ask the city council to modify the 2018 surveillance ordinance to clear up any confusion about whether it applies to facial recognition software.

Myerberg’s letter to Diaz came just over a week after the Metropolitan King County Council voted to ban the use of facial recognition technology by county departments, becoming the first county in the nation to pass such a ban.

3. When Seattle’s 911 dispatch center left the Seattle Police Department last week, the OPA lost its jurisdiction over the roughly 140 civilian dispatchers who work in the center. And the new department—the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC), which the Seattle City Council hopes will eventually hold other civilian public safety agencies—hasn’t yet outlined a plan to handle misconduct complaints against dispatchers.

Though complaints against 911 dispatchers made up only a small portion of the OPA’s caseload, the unit faced roughly 30 to 40 complaints annually over the past five years. Among the most notable recent cases was a dispatch supervisor fired last year for assigning herself overtime to supplement her income despite being unqualified to answer emergency calls, and another dispatcher whom Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz fired in April for telling a Black caller that “all lives matter” during a call about a car break-in.

The OPA’s jurisdiction is set by city law; according to Myerberg, that law—Seattle’s Accountability Ordinance—only authorizes his office to investigate “potential acts of misconduct perpetrated by SPD employees,” which no longer includes 911 dispatchers. While Seattle’s Human Resources department could take on complaints for an additional 140 employees, Myerberg said that if the council or mayor want his office to continue handling complaints against dispatchers, the council will need to expand the OPA’s jurisdiction, which may also require bargaining with the dispatchers’ union.

PubliCola has reached out to CSCC Director Chris Lombard about his plans for handling misconduct complaints against dispatchers.

In Blow to Regionalism, Burien Council Tables Homeless Housing Proposal

DESC’s proposed six-story permanent supportive housing building

By Erica C. Barnett

The Burien City Council voted narrowly last week to delay a Downtown Emergency Center development that would provide 95 units of permanent supportive housing, including at least 25 units for disabled veterans.

The proposal is part of Burien’s 2019 Affordable Housing Demonstration Program, which grants zoning variances to projects that serve people at various income levels; DESC applied to build housing for people between 0 and 30 percent of area median income, the lowest income level included in the pilot.

The Burien Planning Commission approved the project unanimously in April, but council members raised objections after some residents complained that the project would harm downtown businesses and bring homeless people from other areas (like Seattle) into Burien.

It’s a common complaint leveled against projects outside the city—see also: The Red Lion hotel shelter in Renton, another DESC project—and a major challenge for the new regional homelessness authority, which is supposed to come up with a regional approach to homelessness. King County’s suburban cities tend to see homelessness as a “Seattle problem,” and many opted out of a countywide tax that would provide housing for their homeless communities, preferring to pass their own taxes to fund higher-income developments.

Just as cities can’t restrict home sales or apartment rentals to people who already live there, they aren’t allowed to ban “outsiders” from moving into low-income housing developments.

Summarizing opposition to the “contentious and divisive” project, Councilmember Nancy Tosta said at last week’s meeting that community members have raised “concerns” about the “location, scale, and the fact that this facility won’t serve [Burien’s] low-income families and may not serve our Burien homeless population,” because it will be open to homeless individuals (not families) from all parts of the county. Just as cities can’t restrict home sales or apartment rentals to people who already live there, they aren’t allowed to ban “outsiders” from moving into low-income housing developments.

“Our downtown urban center plan envisions a thriving, safe, vibrant business community, and our businesses and community members have expressed concerns about what is happening downtown and that … this facility, where it is proposed, may create more problems, Tosta said. Continue reading “In Blow to Regionalism, Burien Council Tables Homeless Housing Proposal”

The Urbanist Case Against the Homelessness Charter Amendment

by Josh Feit

Last week, I channeled the progressive opposition to what I’m calling the sweeps and shelter initiative—a proposed charter amendment that couples spending on homelessness with a trigger for sweeps.

Short version: Combining these divergent approaches in one initiative is an attempt by pro-sweeps liberals to rationalize a law-and-order crackdown on homeless people by co-opting “compassion.” The amendment literally codifies the “Of course we’re compassionate, but…” mantra into the city charter. The tell: There’s no funding for the housing part of the initiative.

This week, I’ll channel the urbanist argument against the charter amendment, which begins, actually, with the one pro-urbanist element of the proposal: It says “to accelerate the production of emergency and permanent housing” the city “shall, to the full extent permitted by state law, waive land use code and regulation requirements as necessary to urgently site [emergency and permanent housing]…”

It goes on to say the city must waive permitting fees, put projects first in line to expedite permitting, and refund city-imposed project costs. Hear, hear!

This nod to YIMBYism correctly identifies that Seattle’s land use and zoning codes squash housing development.

Unfortunately, this promising language ends up highlighting the limited scope of the charter amendment. The rules are only waived for “housing serving homeless individuals.”

The urbanist approach to homelessness understands that the problem is larger than its symptoms—homelessness—by identifying the cause of homelessness: A dearth of affordable housing.

But the charter amendment misses this larger, systematic problem and then exacerbates it by opting for liberal tinkering. The amendment calls for 12 percent of the city’s general fund (about $190 million) to go to shelter and services through a new human services fund, or about one percent higher than what the city will spend this year. Slightly recalibrating the city budget this way to dedicate money to homelessness, creating the illusion of action, will unwittingly promote this type of spending as the solution, and take political pressure off the city to do what actually needs to be done: Change the city’s zoning rules, so we can meet housing demand with housing supply. For example, 75 percent of the city’s residential land is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. If you haven’t heard, prohibiting multifamily housing is class war from above.

Spending more dollars on the symptoms of housing scarcity, such as tents in parks, will take the city’s eyes of the actual problem: Housing scarcity.

Spending more dollars to address the symptoms of housing scarcity, such as tents in parks, will take the city’s eyes off the actual problem: Housing scarcity. As I said, Seattle currently spends about $190 million on programs for people experiencing homelessness, including shelter. While I’m all for increasing those dollars to help people in crisis, I don’t harbor any illusions that it’s the way to end the crisis.

The only way to do that is to understand that the real crisis is the affordable housing crisis and the real solution is to build more affordable housing stock. All told, through the Housing Levy, the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, incentive zoning, the Multi-Family Housing Tax Exemption program, and other funds, Seattle spent around $115 million on affordable housing in 2020.

It’s clearly not enough. The money translated into about 1,300 affordable units, or about 11,000 units shy of what we need to be creating annually. In order to reset our housing economy so more people can actually afford to live here, we need a total of 244,000 net new affordable homes by 2040, according to the King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force. Our current spending doesn’t come close.

Talking in regional numbers brings up another urbanist critique of the charter amendment proposal: An isolated Seattle response to homelessness will be about as successful as a climate action policy that caps carbon emissions in New York, but not in Texas. Urbanism is about community: creating sustainable metro regions that are connected by sympatico transit, land use, environmental, and housing policy. It’s why we created the King County Regional Homelessness Authority last year, and recently hired a CEO. Seattle shouldn’t undermine this approach, particularly not with a charter amendment that awkwardly justifies a crackdown policy.

Our homelessness policy needs to be about building more affordable housing. An affordable housing approach will check poverty and the downward spiral into homelessness. The cruelty of the sweeps and shelter initiative is that it blames homeless people for the homelessness crisis. It’s like addressing police murders of African Americans by telling African Americans to stop getting pulled over.

Josh@PubliCola.com

Afternoon Fizz: Sheriff Fires Deputy, New Director Lays Out Plans for Homelessness Authority, City Reinstates 72-Hour Parking Rule

King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones

1. King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht will fire a detective for failing to follow basic de-escalation policies and for “extremely poor tactical and officer safety decisions” before fatally shooting a car theft suspect near Enumclaw in 2019.

Detective George Alvarez is a 21-year veteran of the sheriff’s office with a lengthy use-of-force record, including five shootings and a criminal charge for assaulting and threatening an informant in 2003. In November 2019, Alvarez and his partner, Detective Josh Lerum, were driving an unmarked car when they spotted 36-year-old Anthony Chilcott, wanted for stealing an SUV and a pet poodle, driving in rural southeastern King County. Earlier that day, Chilcott had evaded a Washington State Patrol officer, but when the detectives found him, he had parked next to a power station to smoke a cigarette. At the time, Johanknecht wrote, “there was no imminent risk” to members of the public.

Nevertheless, without consulting with Lerum or waiting for backup, Alvarez decided to pull within inches of Chilcott’s driver’s-side door, sparking a confrontation that ended with both detectives shooting Chilcott in the head. Neither detective was wearing a sheriff’s uniform, and witnesses at a bus stop nearby told investigators that they didn’t initially realize that the pair that rammed the stolen SUV across the road and broke the driver’s-side window with a sledgehammer and the butts of their handguns were police officers.

In a letter to Alvarez explaining her decision, Johanknecht emphasized that she did not decide to fire him for the shooting itself, but for his decisions that led up to the shooting. “You did not use the opportunity you had to slow things down,” Johanknecht wrote. “The urgency here was created by your actions, not the actions of the suspect.” Johanknecht and other department leadership also called into question Alvarez’s claims that Chilcott posed an “immediate danger” to witnesses at a bus stop nearby. Instead, Johanknecht argued that Alvarez’s actions had placed bystanders—and Lerum—in danger by sparking an unnecessary confrontation with Chilcott.

For his part, Lerum received a written reprimand for not wearing his ballistic vest or clothing identifying himself as a law enforcement officer during the encounter.

In a press release on Thursday, King County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sergeant Tim Meyer drew a parallel between Chilcott’s death and the failed sting operation in 2017 during which plainclothes sheriff’s deputies shot and killed 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens on a residential street in Des Moines. King County agreed to pay a $2.25 million settlement to Dunlap-Gittens’ family in May 2020; however, according to Meyer, Alvarez is the first officer whom Johanknecht has fired for misuse of force or failure to de-escalate since taking office in 2017.

Cooper Offenbecker, an attorney representing Alvarez, told the Seattle Times that his client intends to appeal Johanknecht’s decision.

According to Rachel Schulkin, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the city “will not immediately resume issuing citations starting April 1 and will instead have a grace period in which we remind the public about the parking rules.”

2. In a media availability this week, new King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones said they intended to “allow for regional variations” in how various parts of King County respond to homelessness, giving the example of a “mega-shelter in Black Diamond” as something that “would not make sense” as part of a regional response. “I don’t see this job as being about running roughshod or issuing policy fiats; it will be about building things together,” they said.

However, Dones added, they are not interested in promoting the narrative that Seattle is somehow producing homelessness or generating the region’s homeless population; cities are natural “draws” for people experiencing homelessness in nearby areas, they said and “there is a natural pull to where there are services. We see this in jurisdictions across the country—people go where they think they can get the help they need.” Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz: Sheriff Fires Deputy, New Director Lays Out Plans for Homelessness Authority, City Reinstates 72-Hour Parking Rule”