Long-held dreams of setting up a regional authority to coordinate homelessness services in King County officially took a step forward this week as the King County Council approved a proposal technically doing that. In reality, last-minute changes to the plan make it so flawed to likely represent a step back, doing more to undermine the region’s response than propel it. And based on debate so far, the Seattle City Council may not be so keen on passing it.
The problem is still money and using models that actually work. Under the plan, suburban cities would contribute nothing in the way of funding. However, thanks to a voting majority on the governing body, they would have power to control decisions, such as insisting on a high-barrier service model that doesn’t have a good track record exiting people out of homelessness.
Seattle would contribute 57% of the authority’s funding and King County the remaining 43% under the setup that the King County Council unanimously passed Thursday. The new body would not have taxing authority, barring it from requiring money from the suburban cities going forward. Efforts to boost countywide funding haven’t fared well. In 2017, then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Executive Dow Constantine briefly floated a countywide sales tax to raise $68 million annually to fund homelessness–but that was right as Mayor Murray’s career was going up in flames amid multiple sexual abuse allegations.
The jurisdictions in King County are spending about $200 million per year on homelessness services, according to a 2018 McKinsey report, but the consultant put the need at roughly $400 million annually. One Table–the regional taskforce Mayor Jenny Durkan and Executive Dow Constantine initiated and that laid the groundwork for this plan–also identified the funding needs as great.
Seattle is spending more than $100 million in its latest budget and the County also is investing significantly in homelessness service, but most suburban cities have skimpier housing and homelessness budgets. Additionally, housing advocates have suggested greater investment in social housing is needed to stem the flow of people into homelessness due to skyrocketing rents. Seattle is greatly outpacing the suburbs on housing growth. Additionally, Seattle voters passed a $290 million affordable housing levy in 2016, and the City recently passed mandatory inclusionary zoning (dubbed Mandatory Housing Affordability) across the fast-growing parts of the city to add approximately 6,000 more rent-restricted homes over the next decade. None of that is enough, but it’s far more aggressive than what suburbs or counties are doing.
With three Seattle City Councilmembers weeks from retirement, the rush to get the regional homelessness authority approved may also relate to the incoming council being even less inclined to cede control to the suburbs who aren’t contributing funding. Mayor Jenny Durkan stressed the positives in a press release.
“I applaud the members of the Regional Policy Committee for moving the proposal forward,” Mayor Durkan said. “Our crisis doesn’t end at our City borders, and we have seen suburban cities committed to this new regional entity. Their support of this plan reflects our shared principles and sets us down the path of embracing this chance to more effectively address homelessness in the region.”
While suburbs contributing their mental powers–such that they are–is nice, funding remains the elephant in the room. Seattle City Councilmembers brought up this glaring problem as they debated approving the plan, as Erica C. Barnett highlighted in her reporting.
“The city of Seattle has been very generous in subsidizing the needs of non-Seattle residents,” Councilmember M. Lorena González said. “And yet that reciprocity is pretty much nonexistent in terms of how this deal is structured.”
“I had always had the impression, going all the way back to One Table that we were going to have a conversation about our funding needs,” Councilmember Lisa Herbold added. “I don’t know why we would, in the structure, foreclose our option to do that.”
Even Councilmember Sally Bagshaw–often a strong ally of the Mayor–agreed with González that the regional authority before them wouldn’t be transformational–as it was originally billed.
Mayor Durkan tried to assuage those concerns in her prepared statement.