A community-led effort to block a 32-unit quarantine/isolation site in White Center stalled Tuesday evening after the King County Council voted down an amendment to its $28.2 million COVID-19 response package. In addition to the White Center site, the overall package would authorize the county to buy and install facilities in Kent, Interbay, and off Aurora.
King County Council Members Girmay Zahilay and Joe McDermott sponsored the amendment removing funding for the White Center facility, and Pete von Reichbauer added his support. Other members weighed a delay in deploying those units with concern for the people of White Center's Top Hat neighborhood, who will be among the first to host such a site as the county dramatically ramps up its capacity to treat and shelter COVID-19 patients without homes, which includes the homeless and people who live in dorms. Though the amendment failed, all of the council members approved the underlying ordinance.
Zahilay and McDermott proposed the amendment after Leo Flor, director of the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS), admitted that the department failed to conduct a formal equity analysis, which requires the county to identify potential impacts on vulnerable communities and work with them to avoid problems, when choosing the White Center site.
Flor insisted the department followed "the equity impact process and values," despite the fact that they didn't do the paperwork. "Just because it’s an emergency doesn’t suspend the principle that connection to community is one of the most powerful resources we have," Flor said.
The discussion was a little tense because Flor didn't really give Zahilay a direct answer to an important question: Why the hell would they put a quarantine site next to senior living facilities and a couple of churches in a low-income, residential area with a large population of immigrants and people of color and—importantly—no local government to stand up for them, especially when other sites the county had scoped out were in more commercial/industrial areas?
Zahilay later noted that White Center's average uninsured rate of 10.8 percent doubles King County's average uninsured rate of 5.3 percent, and that nearly half of the town's immigrant population is uninsured. White Center residents are also more underinsured than they are in King County. “This is a population that is very vulnerable," Zahilay said.
“This is not setting a precedent of 'Not In My Backyard,' this is a precedent of actually taking into account equity and protecting vulnerable communities," he said of his amendment.
Zihalay ticked off the other potential sites and described their general surroundings, noting the disparities in the kinds of places that surround them:
In his response to all this, Flor pointed out that most people who self-quarantine will be in their own homes in residential areas, and he ultimately stressed that his understaffed department needs to acquire or build between 800 and 1,000 units as fast as possible to handle a county-wide outbreak.
But, again, that doesn't really answer the question of why the county would pick that particular spot in White Center.
A spokesperson for DCHS didn't return two messages.
Last week, King County Executive Dow Constantine told the Seattle Times that the White Center site was chosen “because we own the land and it has access to utilities.”
In an email, Constantine's spokesperson said the county also owns the Elliott Ave West site, but the City of Seattle owns the Aurora Ave site.
Fryer said "the size of the White Center site made it suitable for modular units that King County purchased in Texas that formerly housed oil workers," while the "Elliott Ave site will have newly constructed modulars that are currently located in Marysville and have yet been to be moved onsite."
Fryer added that those "new modulars are larger, intended to function as a unit for up to 72 people."
As they sort out this shitty situation that pits two vulnerable populations against one another, the county anxiously continues its search for more quarantine/isolation locations. Flor said the emergency funding bill will stand up less than 100 of the 1,000 units they needed to have built yesterday, so several more communities across the county will need to welcome these sites. We'll see if they place the next four near senior living facilities in low-income neighborhoods.