For more than six years, we have lived under a declaration of emergency for homelessness. Which raises the question, why does our local response not look like one befitting an emergency? Would we respond this slowly to an earthquake? Or a flood? There are multiple reasons, but one can and must be solved by the Legislature this year — the unnecessary red tape of environmental review to site critical new shelter.

For several sessions, state Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat from West Seattle, has championed legislation to waive environmental review for emergency shelters like tiny houses, modular shelter or Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tents. I acknowledge that environmental review is an important part of the development process. Permanent new buildings, with decades of ongoing impact to the local environment, should be reasonably scrutinized for their impact on nature and quality of neighborhood life. However, the application of these regulations to short-term emergency shelter options does nothing but delay our ability as a city to respond to the crisis of homelessness swiftly.

Take tiny houses as an example. In November 2020, the Seattle City Council passed a budget to stand up three new tiny-house villages — with urgency. Proposals from my office called for a more ambitious response, potentially raising that number to as many as 12 new villages. Logistically, this is achievable. It takes a mere five to six weeks to build a tiny-house village, including construction of the buildings, fencing the site, and hooking up utilities like water and electricity. When these shelter options are available, people experiencing homelessness quickly accept them. Within a few weeks of the new villages in Interbay, North Seattle and the University District, the city was able to clear longstanding encampments at Ballard Commons, Bitter Lake and Green Lake. When we ran out of these placements, the removals stopped.

I will be blunt: The difference between clearing those encampments in June or July of 2021 and when they were actually cleared in November and December was tedious and unnecessary environmental review. The Department of Construction and Inspections estimates such review delays sheltering projects by as long as six to eight months. This can go longer if someone appeals the sufficiency of the review to the hearing examiner. Had someone filed such an appeal last year, the villages would still be pending, and those tent encampments would still be standing. An even without such an appeal, a five-to-six week project took nearly a year to complete.

Clearing red tape is necessary to, in turn, clear encampments. The council has done everything within its power to waive obstacles to confronting the crisis. Last March, I helped pass legislation streamlining permanent supportive housing development. These reforms can reduce costs up to nearly $48,000 per-unit and speed up construction timelines by months. But local reforms can only go so far. Environmental review is mandated by the state, and only the state can give us the power to waive it. Red tape at all levels needs to be slashed.

In 2022, cutting that red tape can help avoid the unacceptable delays of 2021. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority is currently in predevelopment for at least three new sheltering developments. The passage of Sen. Nguyen’s bill will determine whether these shelters open in a matter of months or a matter of weeks. The Legislature must act to pass SB 5428 so we can truly respond to homelessness like the emergency it is.