Council Member Lisa Herbold (left) and Phil Tavel (right) disagree on how to fight homelessness.
Seattle City Council Member Lisa Herbold (left) and challenger Phil Tavel (right) disagree on how to fight homelessness. Lester Black

Welcome to the first installment of 🚨What’s Their Issue?🚨, a new election column from The Stranger that looks at the biggest policy issue dividing each pair of candidates fighting for a seat on the Seattle City Council this fall.

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District 1: Council Member Lisa Herbold versus challenger Phil Tavel. Herbold was first elected in 2015 and is running for her second term. Tavel is an attorney who ran against Herbold in 2015 and lost (and unsuccessfully ran for district court judge in 2014).

What's the biggest issue that divides them?

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City of Seattle

Tavel says: homelessness funding.

The largest policy difference between Lisa Herbold and I is about funding approaches to homelessness. Councilmember Herbold is only asking for more funding. We need more funding. But, before we know how much more, we need to understand how much we spend and the effectiveness of those dollars. I am not comfortable writing a blank check with taxpayer money while services providers continuously fail to meet our minimum standards.

Herbold, without knowing Tavel's response, says: homelessness funding.

I'd say the biggest policy difference is that while my opponent and I agree that homelessness is the voters’ number one issue, my opponent believes that “change” for change’s sake, “more listening,” public-private partnerships, and finding efficiencies in government spending will solve the crisis… I, on the other hand, support the recommendations of the McKinsey report.

We say: Someone ring a bell because for the first time this election season, The Stranger agrees with Phil Tavel: the biggest policy difference between Tavel and Herbold is their approach to funding the fight against homelessness.

Herbold thinks the city (as well as our county and neighboring cities) need to immediately increase funding for fighting homelessness. Tavel isn’t opposed to increasing funding, but he wants to do more analysis of our city’s current homelessness funding before he'll commit to spending more money. His rationale sounds a lot like calling for another roundtable, maybe even a task force with a side of constituent outreach mixed in with a consultant or ten plus a few studies, all before he'll commit to spending more to fight homelessness.

Herbold has some strong evidence behind her claim that we need to increase funding immediately. The council member points to the often talked about 2018 study from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Their consultants looked at Seattle and King County’s fight against homelessness and did find room for more efficiencies—and the city is already attempting to enact the report’s biggest efficiency recommendation: combine the city and county’s approach into one regional authority—but the authors ultimately found that more money needs to be spent:

But even the most efficient response system will fail without more money. Spending on homelessness has increased but not enough to keep pace with the scale of the problem. Between 2014 and 2017, the number of households accessing homelessness services grew by an average 11 percent a year.

Funding grew by an average 2.4 percent a year…

In total, we estimate a budget of $360 million to $410 million would be needed (Exhibit 4). This is about twice what the system invests today….

But it is still less than the $1.1 billion that homelessness is estimated to cost the Seattle-area economy as a result of extra policing, lost tourism and business, and the frequent hospitalization of those living on the streets.

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Tavel’s reluctance to commit to spending more money fighting homelessness fits with his overall view on people experiencing homelessness: he thinks we just need to get tough with people experiencing homelessness. He was on conservative talk radio last month saying that the city has been “a horrible enabling parent” to homeless people.

“The analogy that I use,” Tavel said, “is it’s like parents [who] have the 40-year-old pot head on the couch playing video games and leaving their stuff all over… I don’t see any solutions coming from Lisa [Herbold] other than continually saying this is an affordable housing crisis, and it’s not.”

The McKinsey report found that the “real cause” of the homelessness crisis was the region’s affordable housing crisis.