Bellevue, Renton, Issaquah, Maple Valley, North Bend, Covington, Snoqualmie, and Kent voted to opt out of King County’s homelessness measure by proposing their own city-based packages focused on higher income housing.

Last month King County Executive Dow Constantine unveiled a plan to raise $400 million to create 2,000 homes for people experiencing homelessness. The permanent supportive housing plan rests upon bonding off a countywide 0.1% sales tax increase the King County Council approved Tuesday. That authority came from a law the Washington State Legislature passed this spring granting local jurisdictions 0.1% sales tax authority for creating housing affordable to households below 60% of area median income. Executive Constantine envisioned using the revenue for extremely low-income housing (less than 30% area median income).

However, suburban city councilmembers had other ideas and preferred to control the funding themselves and dedicate it toward higher income levels–housing much less likely to serve homeless people directly. Since the authority is only for 0.1% sales tax, the cities have blocked the county measure from applying in their jurisdictions by passing their own measure first before the County acted. These city-level efforts will contribute to affordable housing creation as dictated by law, but in a less coordinated way and at the expense of the County plan.

Erica Barnett laid out the implications in her excellent coverage of the fracas.

“But how much money will there be? The county originally estimated that the tax would bring in a little under $68 million in 2021; bonding against half that revenue stream, the maximum allowed under state law, could give the county around $400 million to purchase sites and turn them into affordable housing,” Barnett wrote. “The cities that have opted out of the tax so far have taken more than $8 million off the table. That brings the county’s annual revenues down to just under $60 million.”

With the additional cities opting out hitting eight, an estimated $18 million has been carved out of the measure. The County will have have to downsize its ambitions since the full $400 million in bonds won’t be possible initially after eight cities jumped ship and went their own way. Beyond obstructing the County’s plan to build 2,000 units of supportive housing, these eight cities have cast doubts on the regional approach to homelessness services that was supposed to be getting underway about now.

Suburbs deny their role in homelessness

As I pointed out in December when Seattle rushed to joined the regional homelessness authority and foot most of the bill, the suburbs had no skin in the game and were promising very little. What Seattle stood to gain wasn’t clear then. And so far the regional authority is off to an inauspicious start, and it’s not just this latest kerfuffle; the authority still lacks an executive director after a consultant-driven talent search took longer than planned.

Annual one night counts show the issue of homelessness touches the entire county and the number of homeless people continues to stubbornly climb, approaching 12,000 in January–even before the pandemic tanked our economy and wiped out tons of jobs. The 2020 count showed Seattle shelters 4,428 of the county’s 6,173 sheltered homeless population–72% of the sheltered population.

As their website photo shows, the Bellevue City Council hears a lot from a certain type of demographic: an retirement-age White man.
As their website photo shows, the Bellevue City Council hears a lot from a certain type of demographic. (Courtesy of City of Bellevue)

Unsheltered homelessness is more diffuse. 20% is in Southwest King County–home to cities that are opting out of the tax: Renton, Kent, and Federal Way. On the bright side, Tukwila voted to stay in the countywide measure in a 5-2 city council vote, with leaders like Councilmember De’Sean Quinn speaking up for regional partnership and the need for supportive housing. Similarly, Federal Way considered but rejected a go-it-alone proposal. Meanwhile, the count tallied 8% of the unsheltered population in the Eastside, where Bellevue and Issaquah are going their own way.

2020 Point-in-Time Count chart shows the distribution of unsheltered homeless people across the county. (Credit: Count Us In)

The Bellevue City Council’s deliberations, which Urbanist reporter Christopher Randels live-tweeted, revealed conflicting desires in suburban leaders. They want the regional homelessness authority to work and to partner with it without actually ceding authority or contributing funds to it. They don’t want to do the taxing themselves, but they’re all to happy to spend the revenue when somebody else takes the initiative. They want to help homeless people, yet they actually target their housing investments at higher income levels and push responsibility for supportive housing–which experts believe is key to solving homelessness–and other services to other jurisdictions.

The suburban cities seem to be denying the reasons the regional authority was created in the first place. Instead of coordinating their investments on the regional level to make them more efficient and avoid redundancies, they’re insisting on planning their affordable housing investment at the city level, eating into city staff time, diluting bonding capacity, and throwing away the chance at close regional coordination.

The United States Census Bureau pegged the median housing income in Bellevue at $112,283–in Maple Valley it’s $107,299, and in Issaquah it’s $101,508. These are 2018 figures, and these numbers have only climbed since. These are wealthy places that have ample resources and a moral obligation to contribute to the homelessness solution. It’s too bad they’re still stuck fighting petty turf wars.

It’s also a shame these cities and the County haven’t done more to address a homelessness crisis years into a declared emergency. Sydney Brownstone’s article in The Seattle Times noted leaders on homelessness worried the pull out of the countywide measure meant these cities weren’t serious about proven solutions.

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said she worried that cities pulling out of the tax signaled a lack of support for homelessness interventions like permanent supportive housing.

“I hope sincerely that some of this is politics rather than policy, and that some cities are trying to make a statement and position themselves for negotiating purposes rather than opting out of doing this good, big necessary thing,” Eisinger said.

“My concern is that there are certain electeds who are not bought in to the clear, understood, effective solution,” Eisinger said. “So that means we just have more work to do.”

Need for countywide progressive taxation

Seattle isn’t exactly a paragon of decisiveness here either, but the Emerald City does invest more than its neighbors. That became doubly true after Seattle City Council recently passed the JumpStart Seattle payroll tax on large companies to raise $214 million annually. That dwarfs the proposed countywide measure three times over.

Instead of passing their own payroll taxes on major corporations, Seattle suburban neighbors seem to be salivating at the opportunity to swipe those jobs from Seattle as tax havens. If the region had all been rowing in the same direction toward progressive taxation to fund progressive priorities, a countywide sales tax hike may not have been necessary. But now we’re stuck relying again on the sales tax, which does fall much harder on the poor than say a progressive income tax.

A sales tax that exceeds 10% with no income tax, no capital gains tax, and a payroll tax only in Seattle isn’t how a progressive region would set up a tax system. Yet it’s the system we’re stuck with for now. It certainly makes addressing our homelessness crisis a lot more difficult. And until suburban cities buy in, it’s likely an impossible task.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Federal Way had passed a city-level sales tax measure to opt out of the county homelessness measure. The Federal Way City Council in fact rejected that proposal. However, North Bend, Covington, and Snoqualmie had been added in light of the fact that they passed measures, giving a new total of eight. A quote from Alison Eisinger has also been added and the updated math with the additional desertions.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. 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. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

2 COMMENTS

  1. “…addiction and untreated mental illness are obstacles.”

    Yes, but not to the extent popularly believed. Roughly 30% of the homeless polled fit that description, and while that seems high, on further review it really isn’t. 20% of Americans have a mental illness, although many of them have treatment as an option. Addiction rates aren’t 10% of the population, granted. But with untreated homeless numbers less than 50% higher than overall numbers, it can hardly be called a major issue.

    “Since income levels will be 0% to 30% basically King Co. will purchase a free hotel room for every heroin addict in the country, because they will flock to Seattle as they do now, for the services.”

    This is incorrect. The vast majority of the homeless in Seattle come from King County. There is no homeless flight into Seattle from around the country. The county wide flight was due to a decision to centralize services to try and make them more effective. This county wide effort was an attempt to fix that.

    Lastly, the cities of South King County at least have their own housing committee, and they supported the housing measure. So some of these jurisdictions are opting out against the advice of their own experts on the matter.

  2. It is unfair to accuse suburban cities (nearly all of them) for a lack of compassion towards the homeless. This is really a vote of no confidence in the county executive and council, and the absolutely miserable job they and Seattle have done in addressing both homelessness and affordable housing, despite nearly $1 billion in federal, state and regional funding each year. These cities are not denying the tax; they are arguing giving it to King Co. would be a waste of money.

    One also has to recognize the colossal blunder by King Co. in failing to adopt the tax by Sept. 30, which under the state legislation gave cities the right to enact their own 0.1% sales tax.

    There are four stages to addressing homelessness:

    1. First is moving someone from the street to a cot or shelter bed. This can be emotionally traumatic, and since there is no storage for the belongings they are lost. Often a shelter bed or cot is less safe or hygienic than a tent, and addiction and untreated mental illness are obstacles. However leaving the homeless on the street or in city parks destroys the fabric and safety of the city, which leads to reduced revenue from fewer tourists and businesses, shoppers and diners, which means less revenue for services and transit.

    2. Next is going from a shelter cot or matt to an enhanced shelter room. This provides better security and allows storage of personal belongings, but requires the process to become sober and/or address mental illness or medication.

    3. Next is going from an enhanced shelter room to subsidized affordable housing. This requires both sobriety and work, which is why many in an enhanced shelter room don’t want to make this step.

    4. The final step is moving from subsidized housing to non-subsidized housing, which is complicated by the high rents of regional housing, and so this is the second dam in the migration from street to non-subsidized housing.

    The reality is it is not affordable to build and subsidize housing forever for every street person, although that is what King Co. plans on doing with this new tax. Without migration to non-subsidized housing the system breaks down, and no one moves from step to step.

    According to King Co. it will use the funds to purchase distressed hotels and motels to house street people, basically skipping steps one and two and moving directly to step 3, forever, without sobriety or an ability to work. Since income levels will be 0% to 30% basically King Co. will purchase a free hotel room for every heroin addict in the country, because they will flock to Seattle as they do now, for the services.

    King Co. also neglects the zoning issues in its plan. Cities are not going to willingly allow tax-paying hotels that are temporarily distressed from the pandemic to be converted to non-tax paying shelters in their commercial cores with their own tax money. King Co. tried this — without notice — in Kent to deal with homeless with Covid-19, and it turned out to be a disaster.

    Suburban cities and organizations like ARCH believe sobriety and treating mental illness are the bedrocks of treating homelessness, and that requires non-subsidized affordable housing. Giving a heroin addict a free hotel room to shoot up in might solve Seattle’s street problem, but it is hardly humane for the addict.

    Furthermore, these suburban cities believe the first and most critical step in homelessness is to prevent it in the first place. This means rent assistance — often for the working poor — during a pandemic as unemployment compensation falls. It hardly makes sense to allow the working poor who need rent assistance to become homeless while providing a heroin addict earning nothing a free hotel room, forever.

    Hopefully this massive vote of no confidence in the County/Seattle homeless complex will finally bridge the gap in power sharing and focus for the County’s desire to create one umbrella organization for regional homelessness and affordable housing. Right now east King Co. has zero trust in Seattle or the King Co. executive and council to deal with this problem, and based on history their distrust is warranted. Many on the eastside believe Seattle has created many of its own problems when it comes to homelessness, and ideology has infected the process, from upzoning to density to transit to income taxes to just about anything other than sobriety, work, and moving to a non-subsidized life..

    I for one applaud the eastside cities for reserving their tax money for their citizens facing homelessness, and hope it finally addresses the abject failure by Seattle and King Co., and the over 100 homeless organizations, in addressing this problem, when of course their funding and their “product” is homelessness. No one has been harmed more by this abject failure than those who are homeless, or on the brink of homelessness.

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