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Seattle mayor releases plan to increase and maintain shelter beds

Mayor Durkan calls it the biggest increase to shelter capacity since the state of emergency was declared

Seattle City Hall.
Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 186192

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has released a plan to use part of the proceeds from the sale of a city property to increase the city’s shelter capacity. The plan is part of Durkan’s “Building a Bridge to Housing for All” proposal, originally floated in January and passed by City Council in February.

Using about $5.3 million from the property sale—plus another $1 million or so from other sources—Durkan plans to add capacity for 522 extra people per night in shelters and tiny house villages, open to referrals from the city’s Navigation Team. The first batch of those beds, 16 tiny houses at the Whittier Heights Women’s Village, will be able to house 19 people by the end of May, according to the plan.

Other funds will go toward tiny house villages at Eighth and Roy (54 homes for 65 people) and 18th and Yesler (30 homes for 38 people), 120 shelter beds at City Hall staffed by Salvation Army (an organization which, nationally, has come under fire for discrimination against LGBT clients), and expansions of current shelters. Mary’s Place will gain 100 new beds at one of its North Seattle shelters; 100 units of “bridge housing” at Haddon Hall, a facility owned by Plymouth Housing and operated by Catholic Community Services, should see 100 new beds by the end of August.

About 180 of the shelter beds are “enhanced shelter”—i.e., they come with wraparound services—while the City Hall shelter is “basic shelter,” or just mats on the floor. In a briefing to reporters Tuesday, the mayor’s office noted that enhanced shelters have been more effective in exiting people from homelessness, although the data is so imperfect that it’s hard to tell. According to city data, exit rates for enhanced shelters went up from a little more than 15 percent in 2017 to more than 20 percent in 2018; meanwhile, basic shelter exits fell from 5 percent to a couple of points below that.

In addition, 163 beds in three Downtown Emergency Services (DESC) shelters that were set to close at the end of May will be maintained. This is separate from other uses of property sale funds, including a rental voucher pilot program that launched in April and some additional funding for services.

Durkan called the plan the largest increase to the city’s shelter capacity since her predecessor declared a state of emergency in 2015.

The property sale dollars should sustain the shelters through the end of 2018, at which point money from the recently passed head tax would theoretically take over—although a spending plan has not been set in stone (the City Council did pass a nonbinding plan) and the tax could be repealed by referendum.

“We are moving forward with this and we intend to keep this capacity online,” said Durkan at the briefing. “It’s not an option to leave people in place. It’s not.”

Durkan told reporters that each night, shelter capacity in Seattle is at about 93 percent, which “for a lot of reasons is almost the equivalent of 100 percent full.”

Meanwhile, more households are moving through the shelter system than even just a year ago. In the first quarter of 2017, 4,793 households interacted with the city’s shelter systems; in the same time period of 2018, that number rose to 5,921.

While a nonbinding spending plan for the head tax passed by City Council put a greater emphasis on building affordable housing than on shelter and services, Durkan has made it clear—including in a spending plan for a lower-tax proposal that ultimately failed and later in a letter—that the priority at the Mayor’s office is the opposite.

“The next progress that we’ll make in shelter space,” said Durkan, speaking of the Building a Bridge plan, “but this does not supplant and is no replacement for also moving on front to develop as much affordable housing as we can… affordable housing, deeply affordable housing, also building workforce and middle income housing, to revamp some of our zoning laws, [and] to make sure we have worked with the region to make sure they pay their fair share.”

Durkan pointed toward $200 million in affordable housing investments in 2018, including money from the Convention Center agreement, the multifamily tax exemption program (or MFTE), mandatory housing affordability (MHA) funds, federal grants, and Seattle Housing Levy funds. In addition, $3.2 million from the “Building a Bridge” proposal will go toward affordable housing.

A recent report by firm McKinsey, in partnership with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce—which, contrary to a recent report published in Forbes, exists—found the region needs to spend around $400 million to solve the homelessness crisis, with about 80 percent of that money going toward affordable housing. And even with affordable housing in the pipeline, it takes time for units to come online—about a two to three year lag, between siting, permitting, and construction.

Although mayor and council have disagreed on exactly how to spend head tax dollars, the “Building a Bridge” plan has broad support from city councilors, including Sally Bagshaw, Lorena González, Teresa Mosqueda, and Mike O’Brien.

“This expansion of shelter options is a demonstration of the City’s commitment to the need to invest across the spectrum of homeless services and housing that will make a measurable impact on reducing the amount of human suffering people experience on our streets every single day and night,” said González, one of the sponsors of the head tax legislation, in a statement. “This short-term strategy, coupled with investments in the creation of deeply subsidized affordable housing, is part of the solution to addressing homelessness.”