On Tuesday afternoon King County Executive Dow Constantine used his annual State of the County address to deliver some good news to a region struggling to find housing, pay rent, secure a decent job, escape grinding and isolating work, combat a deadly respiratory virus, and maybe hug a far-flung relative at some point.
Let me hit you with the highlights from his prepared remarks, which you can watch him give here:
• A new hotel to house the homeless: Constantine dropped $16.5 million to buy the Inn at Queen Ann, a three-story hotel with 68 rooms that has served as a temporary shelter since last year. "A quaint and comfortable hotel...for the budget conscious traveler," as the website described it. Property records show the building with an appraised value of $9.54 million, but a Constantine spokesperson said "assessor values are often below market value in commercial real estate." Over the phone, King County Assessor John Wilson said appraised values lag by a year, which may account for some of the difference. Lack of demand and speculation created a lot of volatility in the hotel/motel market, he added, with prices going up in places where buyers expect quicker economic recoveries. In a phone call, Constantine said he believed the County's facilities management devision negotiated a good deal in an "extremely good location," and said he had "no doubt the County would recoup its investment in the building" when the time comes to sell, which would happen when everyone's off the streets.
The county anticipates announcing "five more purchases...in the coming weeks, including properties in Seattle and in other cities around the county," the spokesperson said. Constantine said "most" of those properties feature more recent construction—"business hotels with kitchenettes, or just chain hotels," he said. He added that his office will also look into installing "manufactured kitchenettes" into hotel rooms with only a microwave and mini fridge, "which gives people for all intents and purposes a studio apartment."
These new properties are part of the County's "Health Through Housing" plan, which aimed to use a 0.1% sales tax hike to "eventually house 45%, or 2,000 people, out of its chronically homeless population of 4,500," according to KING 5. After some suburban cities decided to keep their portion of the tax rather than contribute to the county's larger efforts, Constantine said the plan will ultimately bring "safe, supportive housing to 1,600 of our unhoused neighbors this year and next," which amounts to "one third of today’s chronically homeless residents." Many more people than that sleep outdoors, however. The 2020 point-in-time count showed over 11,700 sleeping unsheltered, with an average of 3,000 people sleeping rough or in tents, and the rest in abandoned buildings, vehicles, emergency shelter, transitional housing, or tiny homes.
• Trailhead Direct is coming back, baby. Come June 5 the county will start running small buses from Seattle to the Issaquah Alps and Mount Si. The County shut down the program when the pandemic hit, but now that we're all supposed to take it outside, in less than a month city mice can scurry out to Mt. Si/Little Si/Mount Teneriffe from Capitol Hill, and to Margaret’s Way/Chirico Trail-Poo Poo Point/ Squak Mt/the High School Trail/ East Sunset Way from Mt. Baker Station. Welcome news for the carless mountaineers among us.
• $150 million allocated for rent relief: The County's first round of assistance tapped $40 million in federal funding to pay landlords for back rent, so long as those landlords agreed to waive a certain percentage of the rent owed to them. Next week the County will allocate $150 million in other federal funds to the program, which, Constantine said, "could help as many as 27,000 families stay in their homes." According to the U.S. Census' latest Household Pulse Survey, over 37,300 renter households in Washington said they were not currently caught up on rent payments.
• Creating popup vaccine clinics at schools: Constantine said he directed Public Health Seattle & King County "to work with every school district in King County to hold popup vaccine clinics," with the goal of "vaccinating every middle and high school student in our county before school starts this fall—in person."
• The Executive also highlighted a smattering of earlier efforts, such as *takes deep breath* ordering "40 battery electric articulated buses;" pledging to cut emissions in half by 2030 through a new Strategic Climate Action Plan; partnering with Chief Seattle Club to build Eagle Village, a 24-unit housing project for homeless Native Americans; reaffirming the commitment to zero youth detention in a few years, tackling equity issues by investing federal and state money into "innovative anti-racist investments like grants to counter hate and bias, promoting digital equity, and rebuild Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian owned businesses most impacted by the pandemic;" putting $25 million into a kind of participatory budgeting process "that can further the truth that government should be breaking down racial barriers;" handing out 20 million masks, and standing up mass vaccination sites all over the county.
• Washington State Sen. Joe Nguyen, who late last month announced his campaign to challenge Constantine, said he believed both he and Constantine "agree that we need systemic change," but "based on my experience it’s hard to create that systemic change when you benefit from that system." Nguyen added, "The effects of climate change, homelessness, the racial inequities we’ve been seeing—they’ve been problems for the last 12 years he’s been in office. Saying you’ll fix a problem over and over again doesn’t fix it. We need leaders who will fight with the urgency to fix things and get it done."
The Stranger originally published this post at 1:17 p.m. today, but then I added a bunch of stuff so we're re-upping it.