Members of Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan seem to have come together on a plan to expand hotel shelters after weeks of back-and-forth on what’s possible. On Monday, Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced he wants to add $12 million to the $30 million announced last year for hotel rooms for homeless people, “enhanced” 24-hour shelter beds or tiny house villages.
Lewis said the $12 million could shelter more than 200 people and would increase the city’s homelessness spending — already more than $166 million — by more than 7%.
The proposal comes after weeks of dispute between Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and City Council members over whether the city can expand shelter during the pandemic and rely on the federal government to reimburse most costs.
In a press release Monday morning, the mayor came out in support of the proposal, saying city officials can look to newly passed congressional funding to pay for what the Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t. Durkan also said the city had identified a new hotel to put people up in, but didn’t say which.
The city’s likely expansion comes as homeless nonprofit staffs are stretched thin and the city’s homelessness division is operating at about half of what is needed for normal operations, Human Services Department Director Helen Howell said at a meeting March 1. The department currently has 20 staff managing 180 homelessness contracts, because their team was scheduled to be replaced by staff at the Regional Homelessness Authority, but the coronavirus pandemic and political delays have snarled the setup of that agency.
Lewis said his plan was developed with feedback from the mayor’s office, which has been publicly critical of opening up more hotels that rely only on FEMA money because the agency doesn’t pay for important behavioral health services and clinicians the city provides to people living in shelters. The mayor’s office and some council members have publicly argued in recent weeks over the arcane complexities of getting federal reimbursement.
“I will not accept any more excuses,” Councilmember M. Lorena Gonzalez said in a statement last week, but she then wasn’t clear about whether new expenditures would be eligible for reimbursement: “The bottom line is this: Even if federal dollars are not guaranteed, we can be confident that non-congregate shelter is FEMA reimbursable in eligible circumstances.”
Last week, Lewis and Gonzalez met with FEMA and the mayor’s office. From that meeting, Lewis said he thinks FEMA will reimburse if the city targets new shelter space toward homeless people older than 65 or people with more than one disease or underlying condition making them susceptible to catching a serious case of COVID-19.
Lewis wants the city to spend more money than is in the current budget, with the confidence that federal dollars will come later. However, he said that if the federal funds don’t come through for years, the city has enough in reserves to cover that upfront cost.
“We very intentionally picked the number that sort of matches the risk level based on the city’s financial position,” Lewis said. “The city has lots of different funds and reserves and with this much money we could figure out a way to pay for the investments (if FEMA doesn’t).”
The gamble is similar to how King County officials hope FEMA will pay for more than 400 hotel rooms they’ve been running all year.
King County, which began putting up homeless people in hotel rooms almost a year ago, has seen relatively little drama about the expenditures — but the county is burning through its reserves and has yet to receive the majority of the money from the federal government.
The earliest this proposal could likely come up for a vote is March 22, if it passes the Finance and Housing Committee on Tuesday. Only Gonzalez has signaled support for it so far.
In an email, mayoral spokesperson Kamaria Hightower said this new proposal takes into account what the mayor and the city budget office have been saying all along.
“Our point has always been that we need to pay for non-eligible individuals, seek FEMA reimbursement when possible, and pay for services like behavioral health which are needed for our shelters,” Hightower wrote.
Lewis, the head of the City Council’s select committee on homelessness, has aggressively pushed to expand the city’s options for homeless people by whatever means available, sponsoring a capital gains tax to fund supportive housing for chronically homeless people last year and spearheading a private capital campaign to try to double the number of tiny houses in the city this year.
That tax likely will come up for discussion again in the next few months now that the state is poised to pass its own capital gains tax. The money it generates along with a similarly focused county sales tax could be critical to getting people out of hotels and temporary shelters set up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without that housing, it’s unclear where many of these hundreds of people the city and county are putting up will go.