The suburbs sure have a lot of opinions!!!
The suburbs sure have a lot of opinions!!! SEASTOCK/GETTY IMAGES

Well, it looks like the Seattle City Council is going to approve a regional homelessness authority interlocal agreement (ILA) that gives suburban cities way more power than they need, shifts decision-making away from homelessness experts and toward elected officials, and has no way of developing an independent funding stream.

All of those things were last-minute changes to a proposal that has been months in the making. Last week, when the proposal, a regional commitment between Seattle City Council, King County Council, and the Sound Cities Association, began making its way through the gauntlet that is bureaucracy, members of the Seattle City Council balked: This was the final version that they had to approve?

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Yet, most of those concerns went out the window as of Thursday's Select Committee on Homelessness and Affordability.

The committee voted 5-1 (Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez voted no) to approve the ILA as the Regional Planning Committee had voted on it last week and as the King County Council had approved on Wednesday.

It tacked on an ordinance with the changes the city wants to make going forward. The ordinance is only binding to the city, aka one-third of the regional committee. The full city council will vote on the proposal on Monday.

This approval tossed out amendments council members, particularly Lisa Herbold and Lorena Gonzalez, had baked in last week to fix glaring issues they saw in the ILA.

The original plan had centered experts on homelessness as the decision-makers for the authority. But, in order to entice the suburbs, the plan pretty much flip-flopped and put that power back into the hands of a 12-member board, nine of which are elected officials, three are subject matter experts.

Tiffani McCoy, the lead organizer with Real Change News, put it best during a public comment on Thursday when she said that the change, to homelessness advocates, meant "politics and political careers will be the guiding factor for this new authority, not best practices, harm reduction, and evidence-based solutions," McCoy said.

Homelessness experts and people with lived experience will still be coming up with policy recommendations but will bring them to elected officials to have the final say. As the language stands, the elected officials only need as few as nine members present and a majority out of that (as few as six votes) to make decisions on policy, budgeting, and a five-year plan. This was something Gonzalez and Herbold were concerned about.

Yet, passing amendments to the ILA would delay a decision until 2020 since each change would have to go back to the beginning (back to the Regional Planning Committee and then the King County Council) and get approved yet again. That would mean new council members, county and city alike, just getting their bearings would have to get up to speed on a complex issue and cast their vote.

Basically, it would mean the Seattle Process would get Seattle-Processier.

So, the committee voted for the ILA. It has passed out of committee with an ordinance tacked on that addresses changes the city wishes to make moving forward. It gives the council the authority to rescind funding—approximately $73 million of it—in case guidelines aren't followed. (Seattle will be contributing 60 percent of the budget but only controlling a quarter of the votes.) Gonzalez called rescinding funding a "nuclear option" that she "couldn't see happening."

One item in the ordinance is a commitment to utilizing evidence-based practices when considering solutions to the housing and affordability crisis, something Gonzalez does not feel the ILA as it stands requires strongly enough.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw rushed to clarify for the suburban cities' benefit that evidence-based "does not mean safe-injection sites."

"The City of Seattle is not asking anybody to cite safe injection sites," Bagshaw clarified (please take this moment to recall the coalition of suburbs that tried to ban safe injections sites when no one was asking them to put in safe injection sites). It just means that they want to base solutions on a public health model.

Bruce Harrell made some worrisome comments about the suburbs as well.

"We don’t have a proven track record of working together on this particular issue," Harrell said about Seattle working with the county and suburban cities, "I think I fully understand concern going into this. The level of maturity and level of experience and in-depth knowledge [Seattle has] isn’t quite shared there." By there, he means the suburbs.

Harrell segued into saying that Seattle needed to be a leader on the issue. But, the suburbs are getting three seats on this board—which is two more than they were guaranteed in the original version of the plan before changes were made in early December—and the Seattle City Council isn't confident they know what they're doing.

To that point, Gonzalez worries that the ordinance won't impact the county or the suburbs.

"Let’s not play cute about what this ordinance is," Gonzalez said, "it’s binding to us as the city but not binding to the county."

She abstained from voting on the ordinance until she gets a commitment in writing from the county that they will follow this ordinance as well.

"There’s been a lot of politics played on this issue already," Gonzalez said, "and that lowers my level of confidence absent some written assurance that there is a true and meaningful commitment to addressing some of these issues."

Flaws still persist in the ILA. The fact that it's an ILA alone is troubling. Originally, the authority was going to be a public development authority—that sounds like political gibberish but basically would have given the authority the right to eventually issue taxes and eventually find its own revenue stream. The suburbs were adamant that they would not be taxed. Thus, the ILA was born and the suburbs, somehow, got more seats at the table.

County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who has been leading the charge on getting this ILA approved, said the process has "not only been like herding cats while making sausage, it’s been like finding needles in haystacks while walking in the wrong shoes all at once."

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"In the end," Kohl-Wells said before the King County Council voted yes on the ILA yesterday, "I think we’ve come up with something pretty good, but obviously not ideal."

In each hearing where it was discussed, elected officials have called the plan "imperfect." City Councilmember Debora Juarez even said she wasn't "completely happy with how this played out" but that this was about "the greater good here."

The full Seattle City Council will vote on the ILA and the ordinance on Monday. It's looking like a regional homelessness authority, despite any misgivings by the public or our representatives, will be approved before the new year.

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