The Washington State constitution prohibits the “gifting” of public funds, but there are some exceptions. Paying real rent isnt one of them, apparently.
The Washington State constitution prohibits the “gifting” of public funds, but there are some exceptions. Paying rent to the Duwamish isn't one of them, apparently. 400TMAX / GETTY IMAGES

JustCARE, a hotel-based intensive case management program contracted by King County, didn’t mean to give officials a headache with its administrative cost log. But when the organization requested reimbursement for its “Real Rent” payment to the Duwamish tribe, the county hesitated and ultimately denied its request.

Over a month ago, JustCARE sent the county a list of its administrative and indirect expenses. Its parent organization, the Public Defender Association (PDA), billed the county almost $900,000 a month for the organization’s rooms and facilities operations. On top of that, the org added a portion of its monthly rental payment of $26,000 to the landlord of the Prefontaine Building, which the PDA uses to house JustCARE and LEAD. But the PDA also paid $500 a month to the Duwamish tribe as reparations for operating its programs on stolen land. PDA Executive Director Lisa Duagaard said the nonprofit asked the county to pay JustCARE’s share of that monthly expense, which the PDA determined to be just over $250.

The Real Rent campaign launched in 2017. Its organizers called on people who live and work in Seattle to pay up to the Duwamish, the tribe whose Chief the city takes as its namesake. The campaign drew over 20,000 real renters, including JustCARE, to support the tribe’s culture and vitality.

“It’s not a luxury to us, it’s what it costs to operate on this land,” said PDA Co-Executive Director of Operations Bessie Scott in a phone interview.

The relatively new program has never asked the county to reimburse its rent to the Duwamish before. Still, Scott said JustCARE added the line item with an “open mind.” She didn’t expect any grief from the county, because in her eyes JustCARE and the county hold similar values.

But the request gave the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) pause. According to emails sent in March between JustCARE and the agency, the payment to Real Rent Duwamish topped DCHS program manager Stephanie Moyer’s list of budget items the county had questions about. After Scott answered those questions, Moyer said the county would continue reviewing just one request – the Real Rent payment.

On April 12, a spokesperson for the department said in an email that “upon financial and legal review” the county considered the reimbursement of JustCARE’s rent to the Duwamish tribe “an inappropriate use of public funds.” She did not immediately respond when asked why the county thought the payment was inappropriate, but the Washington State constitution prohibits the “gifting” of public funds. There are some exceptions, but for the most part the state can't give money to private entities at the expense of the public.

Before the county came to this decision, Scott told the agency she thought “using taxpayer money to uplift our brothers and sisters” was what equity and social justice was all about.

In light of the rejection, JustCARE doesn’t plan to ask the Duwamish for a refund. Scott said other PDA programs will pay more rent to the tribe to make up for the loss.

“Hopefully, other funders and other County programs won’t take the position that Real Rent isn’t a necessary cost of doing this work,” Scott said of the county’s decision.

Ken Workman, a Duwamish Tribal Council Member, thanked JustCARE in an emailed statement but did not comment on the county’s refusal to reimburse this expense.

To be sure, local governments rarely share funds with tribes. Tribes can apply for some county and state grants, but the federal government doles out benefits such as land rights, health care, education, and fishing rights.

Given that the U.S. Department of the Interior has denied recognition of the Duwamish Tribal Organization (DTO), Workman said the tribe is primarily concerned with getting the federal government to uphold the Treaty of Point Elliott and provide rightful recognition of the tribe.

But many of the region's tribes take issue with DTO claiming stewardship of the land, and they advocate against its federal recognition, as many of their members are of Duwamish descent. The Muckleshoot, Puyallap, and Tulalip tribes claimed on that DTO is “deceptively using the name of our ancestors in an effort to appropriate our history and our culture.”

The DCHS spokesperson did not immediately respond when asked if this controversy played into its decision.