Almost four years after declaring a "state of emergency" on homelessness, on Wednesday morning King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan officially announced that they've delivered to their respective legislative bodies proposals for a new Public Development Authority that will coordinate a regional response to the crisis.
Many politicians have talked about bringing "stakeholders" to "the table" to talk about solving homelessness. Instead of building more houses, for instance, in 2017 local officials created One Table to talk about the best ways to build houses. Lo and behold, the One Table (plus the Regional Affordable Housing Task Force, among other work groups) begat nothing but another table. But this will be, with any luck, the last table around which the "stakeholders" shall gather. The last table to which chairs shall be pulled up. It will be THE FINAL TABLE.
This table is called the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA). But who will sit at this table? And what will it do?
Who Sits At the Table?
The KCRHA is composed of two tables: a steering committee and a governing board. Seven or eight officials will compose the steering committee, including the Seattle Mayor, the County Executive, one Seattle City Council Member, one King County Council Member, up to two representatives from suburban cities (e.g. a mayor or a city council member), and two people with lived experience of homelessness.
The steering committee will appoint a governing board of 11 "experts" on the subject, which must include three people with lived experience of homelessness. This board will "hire, fire, and review the performance of the Executive Director," according to a press release.
Including people who've been homeless on these boards appears to be rare if not unique among counties with similar authorities, such as Los Angeles.
What Will the KCRHA Do?
The agency will house Seattle and King County's homelessness services—its shelters, its emergency response teams, its case management systems, its diversion and prevention programs—under one roof.
The governing board will develop long-term plans for addressing homelessness countywide, oversee applications for federal grants, conduct the one-night count, create a new "Ombuds Office" to act as a "single point of contact for customers" (i.e. people experiencing homelessness) that coordinates referral to services or housing programs.
It will not include, according to interim director of the Seattle Human Services Department Jason Johnson, Seattle's Navigation Team. So Durkan's administration will still be able to sweep homeless encampments or "obstructions" as they please.
The board will also pool money from Seattle, King County, and small cities who'd like to participate, and propose a budget for how to spend that money on all these programs they now oversee. Each member of the steering committee will have an up-or-down vote on that budget.
Who Is Buying This Table?
At a press conference Wednesday morning, Durkan and Constantine announced that the City of Seattle and the County will dump a combined $128 million into KCRHA's pot, with $55 million coming from King County and $73 million coming from Seattle. Both will also provide money for start-up costs totaling around $3.3 million. Basically, all the money both entities spend on homeless services is going into KCRHA. Right now it's unclear exactly how money will flow from the city and county to the authority going forward, but that will get worked out during the legislative process.
In an interview after the conference, Johnson crossed his fingers and said he was "hopeful" that it won't take longer than this fall for both councils to sign off on the bills.
He probably won't have to keep his fingers crossed too long. Fifteen big-time "service providers, and business and philanthropy leaders" have come out in support of the legislation, including Vulcan, Ballmer Group, Housing Development Consortium executive director Marty Kooistra, and Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk.
One Potential Problem
King County Council Member Reagan Dunn and conservatives and the Seattle Times are already yelling about how this deal could screw small cities in King County, and they'll probably try to tank it.
Durkan and Constantine tried to head off this criticism at the press conference by announcing the support of Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, who admitted that "there’s not agreement on every issue, yet" but who nevertheless praised the KCRHA and urged small city reps to participate.
In an interview before today's announcement, Dunn previewed the inevitable battle between conservative mayors and liberal mayors to come.
He argued that the KCRHA will be "dominated by Seattle," seeing as how the seven-or-eight-member steering committee will boast, he thinks, at least four representatives from Seattle. He's thinking of Durkan, Constantine, a Seattle City Council Member and, he guesses, King County Council Member Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who has taken the lead on this issue. He also adds the two people who've experienced homelessness to that list, arguing they would "probably" be from Seattle considering that the majority of the county's homeless population lives in Seattle. That assumes Kohl-Welles retains her seat, and that the two members of the homeless coalition would be from Seattle, which obviously isn't set in stone and which is a strange thing to say.
Dunn worried a potentially Seattle-heavy board might perpetuate the city's "failed policies." He then floated a couple of conservative policies he likes, such as providing bus tickets to send the homeless out of town (to family members or friends who can support them), not “allowing loitering,” and choosing to prosecute “certain crimes.” Dunn said he'd be "open" to raising taxes "if the policies we're funding make sense."
At this point in the conversation on homelessness, you might not need any more evidence to support the idea that criminalizing homelessness, a position Dunn appears to advocate for in his list of preferred policies, is not the best response to the crisis. But, in case you need a refresher, read this piece and this piece. And recall that Seattle's policies aren't failing—particularly not for young people and veterans. It's just that more people are becoming homeless than exiting homelessness due to a variety of reasons including increased wealth inequality, evictions, and rising health care costs.
Anyhow, if you guessed that Dunn's other concerns were "this board won't be accountable to anyone" and "tax dollars from Enumclaw and Redmond are going to be used to solve homelessness problems in and around Seattle," then you know a PNW Republican when you see one and you win today's prize, which is reading the rest of this Slog.
These are some of the same arguments used against Sound Transit, and the same counter-arguments will now be used to bat them away. 1) There will be plenty of small city representation on the KCRHA if they want to participate, as small cities are "welcome" to join whenever they want. 2) Homelessness is a countywide issue, so the agency will benefit every city in the county—not just Seattle. 3) Small towns offload their homeless populations onto Seattle anyway because we're the only city with relatively robust services, so Seattle has been subsidizing this countywide problem for a while now, and the amount of money we're pouring into "evidence-based, data-driven" regional solutions is actually a gift to these cities.
Dunn said he planned today to propose a motion at council to direct Constantine to put together a town hall composed of elected officials from King County, Seattle, and the 38 other cities "to hash this out" before we have to create a new agency.
The proposal will likely not be adopted. At the press conference, when asked about Dunn's plans, Kohl-Welles said she hadn't "gotten any details on Dunn's proposals." Constantine said he wasn't "interested in speculating what people are going to do politically."
Another Potential Problem
The KCRHA, as all the elected officials were careful today to say, will only manage the "emergency response" to homelessness in the region. “It will not solve the crisis" but it will “set a solid foundation for the future," as Constantine put it. "We are not saying this is the solution or a panacea,” Durkan added. (Incidentally, this rhetoric didn't match the rhetoric of Carolyn Malone, who experienced homelessness for five years and who helped create this legislation. "I know strategies to make homelessness extinct” in this county, she said. "I want my voice heard. I want lived experience to be at the table when we talk about these strategies.")
The elected officials are being cautious with their language, I'm assuming, because the solution to homelessness isn't creating an agency to manage it, it's building houses for people. Durkan more or less acknowledged this during the conference. "While every person experiencing homelessness has their own story, and needs their own solution, they all need the same thing. A house. A home." She added that the new authority is "conjoined with discussions around housing, but it is a separate conversation."
So the new homelessness authority isn't going to be in charge of developing a plan for the primary solution for homelessness, which is housing. Now that's what I call ~synergy.~ However, the authority will be in charge of whether or not we make the problem worse with local government's response to non-housing needs such as health care referrals, potential rent assistance, etc.
The new authority will likely be more efficient and therefore hopefully less costly than our mix of current programs, and so while it won't solve the major problems, it seems like it will ultimately be the smarter move in the long run.