Seattle's next mayor will have a big say over how to enact the Compassion Seattle charter amendment, which voters will consider if the measure receives the roughly 30,000 signatures necessary to make it on the November ballot.
For instance, the amendment, which amounts to a series of policies that purport to "end the homeless crisis," lacks a funding mechanism to pay for those policies, but it ties 12% of the city's general fund to a new, dedicated "Human Services Fund." The next mayor will decide where to trim that money from existing budgets, or whether to pass new progressive revenue solutions.
Amendment-crafter and former interim mayor Tim Burgess mentioned the new JumpStart payroll tax as a means to supplement budget money, but critics say that won't be enough, and Burgess doesn't think the city needs to create another tax to find more funding.
Aside from the funding, the amendment's language opens a door to allowing homelessness sweeps again, a practice the council tried to end in last year's budget. The next mayor will choose how to apply that part of the amendment, or whether to apply it at all.
Since one of them will likely be calling the shots if this thing passes, I asked the leading mayoral candidates in the 2021 race about their thoughts on the amendment.
Former Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell, who previously said his plan to solve homelessness was to create a platform where anyone can donate to throw money at the issue, said in a statement that he was "pleased to see this kind of progress and agreement between human service providers, advocates for the unsheltered, and local business leaders."
Harrell added that "the buck will stop with me on homelessness" and that, if passed, the Compassion Seattle plan "will guide actions I've been outlining, including a massive investment in emergency housing, individualized services, and helping people out of tents and into housing as units come online." He did not say whether or not he would support encampment sweeps.
Architect Andrew Grant Houston, on the other hand, wasn't a fan. He said that the amendment was "not the right answer for the crisis at hand."
Houston continued: "Legally compelling the Seattle City Council to further allocate funding... without any sources for said additional funding, is rash and short-sighted." Houston instead wants to build 2,500 tiny homes and create "broader efforts to invest in long-term solutions," but he did not specify how he would pay for that. Houston is not in favor of sweeps.
Chief Seattle Club executive director Colleen Echohawk, whose organization is already backing the amendment, replied to my inquiry with a link to a Facebook post. In the post, she said she was "hopeful" about the plan, and added that it "mirrors" her own platform on homelessness. She also maintained that encampments should not be swept.
In a past interview, Echohawk was noncommittal about whether she'd create new progressive revenue options as mayor, plus she sits on the board of the Downtown Seattle Association, which opposed the JumpStart Seattle payroll tax. In a follow-up, she said, "All funding options should be on the table."
City Council President Lorena Gonzalez said she thought the amendment was "a good start," but she'd like to see broader goals since Seattle is already housing people in under-utilized hotels, expanding shelter capacity, and creating tiny homes.
The amendment could go further if it expanded shelter goals and addressed "the underlying causes of homelessness—poverty and housing shortfalls," she said.
One tact Seattle could take is reexamining restrictive single-family zoning laws that limit where new, dense affordable housing can be built. Seattle should do this if "we are serious about putting more than another bandaid on this complex challenge," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez's biggest issue with the amendment is that it doesn't have a dedicated funding mechanism. Because of her experience on the council dealing with the city budget, Gonzalez knows that "an unfunded mandate" will mean the next mayor has to "cut vital services and programs to pay for it." Gonzalez would prefer to find a new progressive revenue source that requires "Seattle's wealthiest residents and big corporations [to] pay their fair share." She pointed to the JumpStart tax that she co-sponsored as a model on which to craft future progressive revenue solutions.
Gonzalez did not say whether or not she supported sweeping encampments, though she and the city council voted to defund the Navigation Team during her tenure as council president.
Former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell said sweeps have "not been a policy that has worked well." She praised some of the amendment's policy goals, such as investing in behavioral and mental health and interim housing, but blamed "failed leadership" on amendment's existence in the first place. "There are folks in this race who have been in city government who haven’t made scaled progress on this issue," she said.
Farrell added that she'd be well-equipped to deal with a debate around how to fund the amendment since she had similar debates in the Legislature around the McCleary decision on school funding. "We need to make sure we’re not cutting other services such as libraries and potholes," Farrell said. She had to fight to keep social services from being cut during the McCleary debates, she said, and she would do the same as mayor if voters approved the homelessness charter amendment.
Farrell said she sees the amendment as "a mandate" for her big housing plan. She's been calling for an "ST3 for housing," a reference to Sound Transit 3, the $54 billion ballot measure to extend light rail, which was funded through regional sales, car tab, and property taxes.
Farrell has yet to release the details of her "big and scaled and regional... approach to solving the housing ability crisis."
As far as the Compassion Seattle amendment is concerned, "this policy is really only going to be as good as the next mayor," Farrell said.
Currently, 15 people are vying for Seattle's top office. The May 14 filing deadline for candidates in the 2021 race is swiftly approaching.