Regional approach to homelessness may require Seattle to give up some control

The Seattle City Council passed the new agreement out of committee Thursday with an ordinance setting ‘expectations’ going forward.

A person walks among tents below a freeway overpass

Tents and structures seen at a homeless encampment near South Dearborn Street in Seattle's Chinatown-International District, Feb. 25, 2019. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

In recent years, Seattle has spent millions on consultants, all of whom have mostly reached the same conclusion: The fragmented nature of the area’s response to homelessness, directed as it is by individual cities, King County and a philanthropic system, makes it harder to address the region’s homelessness crisis.

Now, as a proposal to establish “regional collaboration” between these entities is just one vote away from final approval, the cost of the reorganization is coming into focus: In order to work with others, Seattle may soon give up some control over how it addresses the leading crisis of the city’s modern era.

“We are [giving up control] and there’s been a lot of questions about, ‘Why are you doing that?’ ” said Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. “And the answer is, if we’re going to do something different, this is the best advice that we’ve got from the national consultants, who are looking at best practices from across the nation, and that it has to be a regional approach and that means everyone has to give a little.”

On Wednesday, the King County Council passed legislation to establish the new regional authority by way of an agreement between jurisdictions. 

The Seattle City Council followed suit Thursday, passing the agreement out of committee for final approval Monday. The move comes despite some vocal misgivings on the council's part about how "evidenced-based" the new authority will be and what it will take to amend its budget. 

But in an effort to get it across the finish line by the end of the year, the council nevertheless moved the agreement forward Thursday without amendments. In lieu of amendments — which would trigger a drawn-out reconciliation process — Seattle also passed an accompanying ordinance stating the city's "expectations" for the new authority. If, in a year, the city believes those expectations are not being met, it reserves the right to pull the substantial funding it's putting toward the agreement — the "nuclear option," as Councilmember Lorena González called it. 

If all goes as planned, the city will take its final vote on the new authority Monday, making it official just before a new council takes over in 2020. 

Thursday's vote represented a culmination of many months of effort to make the new, collaborative approach a reality. The process has been complicated by a recent shift in the nature of the new effort. 

Under the original proposal, decision-making power would be given to a board of subject matter experts, an idea borne out of a consultant’s recommendation intended to give the most power to the people most knowledgeable on the subject of homelessness. But in a move intended to win buy-in from suburban cities concerned about putting unelected experts in charge of policy, the proposal was amended to give that power almost entirely to elected officials. A CEO would staff and manage the authority.  

The subject matter experts would live on an “implementation board” that would issue recommendations to the elected officials, flipping the original proposal.

Under the proposal passed by the county and city, Seattle would provide nearly 60% of the overall funding, but control just a quarter of the votes — equal to those held by each of three other representative groups from King County, suburban cities and individuals who have struggled with homelessness or housing instability. King County government would contribute the rest of the budget. Suburban cities — under the umbrella of the Sound Cities Association — would not pitch in any additional funding, though taxes their citizens pay to the county would ultimately go toward the new authority.

“From the Sound Cities’ perspective, we needed an equal place at the table with Seattle,” said Bellevue City Councilmember John Stokes, who sits on the regional policy committee considering the proposal. “[Suburban cities] want three seats, with Seattle’s three seats.”

The city's passage of the agreement out of committee Thursday came with the explicit threat of pulling out down the road if certain conditions aren't met — both departures from what King County passed.

For one, funding for cities should be contingent on those jurisdictions following "evidence-based" practices, according to the ordinance. Councilmember González had highlighted her concerns about the arrangement last week, chief among them that some cities may use Seattle resources to pursue “punitive” measures against their homeless populations.

“The limited dollars that we are pooling together to address the regional realities of homelessness should remain squarely focused on performance outcomes and should be utilized to support evidence-based strategies that are either national best practices or local best practices or emerging best practices that have been shown to be effective in addressing the needs of those who are chronically homeless or continue to fall into the cycle of homelessness,” she said last week.

Seattle's ordinance also does state the city's intention to never amend the budget or policies with fewer than eight votes out of 12 amid fears that major changes could be pushed through without any city support and over the objections of the subject matter experts on the “implementation board.”

These departures from what's contained in the agreement are "expectations" of the city's, but contain some weight behind them. "Compliance with these expectations will inform the City’s decision regarding the allocation of annual funds to the Authority," reads the ordinance. 

González remained skeptical of the agreement passed Thursday; she abstained from the vote in the hope that she'd receive a written commitment from King County leaders that the city's expectations, as laid out in the accompanying ordinance, are also those of the other participating cities.  

"I think that’s a reasonable thing for me to do as someone who’s also accountable to my constituents," she said Thursday.

Bagshaw called the whole arrangement between Seattle and the suburbs “absolutely imperfect,” but said the proposal would provide Seattle with access to more public land in the suburbs to be used for modular housing or tiny home villages to house people experiencing homelessness. The suburban cities, meanwhile, would have access to a larger budget.

For other Seattle leaders, though, the move comes with risks. At a price tag of $73 million, Seattle is betting big on the agreement, which will require it to work with cities that have assailed its approach to the problem. Stokes, for example, referred to a “messy Seattle-style tent city” he saw while driving in the city recently.  

“They’ve been working on it for a long time, and they’re not doing anything on it,” he said. “The optics and the way Seattle is approaching these things [are] seen in the rest of the county and the impression is Seattle is not dealing with this very well.”

Outgoing Seattle Councilmember Bruce Harrell, however, expressed hope that Seattle could lead on the issue of homelessness within this larger body. 

Nearly 70% of King County’s homeless population resides in Seattle, according to the 2019 annual count.

"We have a certain level of almost maturity and experience in this area because Seattle has been hit so hard by homelessness," Harrell said Thursday. 

So for the new regional structure to win approval, city and county officials have had to walk a tightrope to something that satisfies both the needs of Seattle council members, who will fund the majority of the project, and representatives of the suburbs, whose constituents may see Seattle as a bogeyman that has failed to address the exploding issue — a struggle that King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles on Wednesday called “perplexing” and “almost insurmountable.”

King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci summed it up this way: “Things would be easy, if not for all the people.”

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