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.
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?”