Tag: Nancy Backus

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?”

Three Takeaways From the Final One Table Meeting

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Last Friday marked the long-awaited, and final, meeting of the One Table regional task force on homelessness—a group of political, nonprofit, business, and philanthropic leaders formed last year to come up with an action plan to address the root causes of homelessness in King County.

Did they do it? Not exactly. One Table’s final work product—a list of recommendations and general timelines (“within one year,” “in 3-10 years,” etc.) with no dollar figures or chains of responsibility for implementation—hasn’t changed substantially since April, when the group last met to discuss a set of “recommended actions.” Those actions include things like funding long-term rental subsidies, expanding opportunities for behavioral health jobs for people of color, creating training programs for high-wage jobs aimed at vulnerable communities, and expediting permits for affordable housing.

With that in mind, here are five key takeaways from the eight-month One Table process.

1. Nothing to see here.

Several media relations folks mentioned to me that they didn’t really publicize the final One Table meeting because, frankly, there wasn’t much news, and that was evident from the opening remarks by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. Constantine touted the fact that he was moving up the timeline for issuing $100 million in housing bonds that will be paid back by future proceeds from the county’s hotel/motel tax, which will make the money available slightly earlier but does not represent new funding. (Those funds can only be used for “workforce housing” near transit stops, so it won’t directly impact people living unsheltered or in deep poverty anyway). And Durkan, whose “deal” with Amazon on an employee hours tax that would have brought in $75 million a year for housing and shelter fell through almost instantly, touted her innovation advisory council—a group of tech companies that will advise the city on homelessness, but have not committed any funding to implement whatever “solutions” they come up with—as well as several upcoming Pearl Jam charity concerts and the potential for building modular housing. None of this was news, and it set the stage for a two-hour meeting where basically nothing was announced.


2. It’s the housing, stupid.

One Table members broke up into small groups—that is, many small tables—to discuss “root cause” areas including affordable housing, behavioral health, criminal justice, child welfare, and employment. They had half an hour to come up with a list of “solutions.” I sat in on a table that included Plymouth Housing director Paul Lambros, Seattle Housing Authority director Andrew Lofton, and Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk. Their primary recommendations? “Build and maintain more affordable housing.” This, they said, could include increasing the federal low-income housing tax credit (not likely given the current Administration’s mission of dismantling HUD and federal programs that benefit the poor), providing incentives for banks to fund construction and ongoing maintenance of low-income apartments; and making it clear to the public that, as Gates Foundation program officer Kollin Min put it, “there’s a direct correlation between the lack of housing and homelessness.”

Other groups came back with the same conclusion: Preventing homelessness and preserving existing affordable housing were important, but the region just needs more funding for housing. A similar conclusion emerged out of the groups focused on behavioral health: Without money for mental health care and substance abuse treatment, and funds to build housing for people when they get out of treatment so they don’t end up right back where they were, addressing “root causes” will be impossible. “Ultimately, the need is housing and money,” a report back from one of the behavioral health tables concluded.

3. Tribalism over regionalism.

It’s pretty clear that for all the lofty talk of “regional solutions,” the leaders of the One Table task force remain starkly divided over what will constitute the right solutions for different parts of the county and who’s to blame. Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus reiterated the points she and the leaders of four other suburban cities made in a letter urging her fellow One Table leaders to support a plan to force homeless people “who refuse treatment” into forced lockdown detox using a state law designed to allow family members to intervene on behalf of people who pose an imminent threat to themselves. “We know these individuals. We might see them on a regular basis. They’re familiar individuals and they’re not willing to accept help. At some point in time, we need to be able to say, you are going to get help,” Backus said. And she touted a church-run food bank in her cities that requires people who are capable of working to “pick up a rag and soap” or clean up garbage as a condition of receiving food.

“The cities outside of Seattle have different needs,” Backus said. “What works for Auburn, what works for Bellevue, isn’t going to work for the city of Seattle, and we have to realize that.” That is pretty much the opposite of a “regional” approach, and is unlikely to fly with the leaders of bigger governments like King County and Seattle who tend to balk at ideas like forced treatment and unpaid labor.

What will become of One Table’s recommendations remains unclear. Rachel Smith, Constantine’s chief of staff, told the group that the county has hired consultant Marc Dones with the Center for Social Innovation to “guide our work with expertise” as the county comes up with an implementation plan for the recommendations. For now, One Table’s work is concluded—and an action plan to address the root causes of homelessness remains unfinished.