LIHI tiny house village at 22nd Ave at Lutheran Church of Good Sheppard. (LIHI)

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.

Update: As it turns out, the Seattle City Council did in fact approve the authority on December 16th by a 5-1 vote. In a surprising twist, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmember Sally Bagshaw were able to round up the votes.

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.

“In the coming days, both the King County Council and Seattle City Council will undertake consideration of this proposal, and I appreciate their continued input,” Mayor Durkan said. “In line with our financial commitment, the City of Seattle will have a strong voice on the Governing Board and appointments to the Implementation Board, but our Council maintains complete ultimate authority through our budget process. If we find the new approach and structure does not provide results, we can and should make changes.”

If the suburban members try to spend Seattle’s money against the wishes of the Seattle City Council, this could be one of the shortest lived regional authorities in history. It’s a strange way to begin. A money imbalance paired with a power imbalance in the opposite direction puts the authority on the diciest of footings.

The other major flaw with the proposal is the reneging on earlier promises that homelessness experts and people with actual experience living in homelessness would guide policy. Instead, the new authority has no obligation to listen to these experts. Lived Experience Coalition, a group of people who are currently and formerly homeless, objected to this last-minute change. Harold Odom, a member of the coalition, criticized the move in testimony at King County Council.

“You spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants that gave you some good recommendations,” Odom said. “You spent all that money and now you’re going to change it.”

Mayor Durkan did portray input from people who’ve experienced homelessness as valuable, and characterized engagement as “extensive,” but was ready to forge ahead, even with those voices sidelined going forward.

“After extensive engagement, Executive Constantine and I introduced our proposal,” Mayor Durkan said. “Since August, there’s been valuable input and feedback from service providers, people with lived experience, Mayors, elected officials, City Councilmembers, County Councilmembers, and Sound Cities Association members who have been part of the working group as well as the Regional Policy Committee.”

Despite Seattle being put in a weak position, Mayor Durkan seemed to want to get the regional authority authorized and perhaps fix the many kinks later. Seattle’s leaders have been dreaming of a regional authority for several administrations–perhaps not realizing how different the suburban dream was from theirs.

“We must seize this chance to act for our region after nearly a decade of discussion,” Mayor Durkan concluded.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.