Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon agree on big-picture solutions in the fight against homelessness but are split on immediate questions facing the next Seattle mayor.
On the city’s approach to homeless services — one of the dominant issues in the increasingly testy Seattle mayoral campaign — the two candidates agree on the basics.
Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan agree on the urgency of getting the city’s homeless into safe and stable housing.
Both support building more low-cost and subsidized housing for the chronically homeless. Moon, an urbanist and waterfront activist, proposes more tiny-house villages. Durkan, the former U.S. attorney for Seattle, also wants to build tiny homes across the city and supports expanding rental vouchers.
But they differ on more immediate battles over Seattle’s plans to address homelessness, where the next mayor could decide the outcome.
On the flashpoint issue of unsanctioned tent camps on public land, Moon and Durkan are split.
Durkan firmly supports removing unsanctioned homeless camps, calling them unsafe. Moon, equally firm, has promised blocking removal of unsanctioned camps, saying “sweeps” are ineffective.
When it comes to the city’s system for dealing with the homelessness crisis, they also differ on a more wonky but important question.
Seattle is currently rebidding contracts for homeless services for the first time in nearly a decade. With $30 million in city money up for grabs, one of the biggest differences to emerge between the candidates regards whether or not to stick with the current plan for how the money will be spent.
Moon says if elected, she would consider making immediate changes to how the city has earmarked funding for homeless services, potentially delaying the rebidding process. New contracts are expected to be awarded next month.
Moon says she’s skeptical about one strategy emphasized in the rebidding — rapid rehousing, a short-term rental voucher program. Rapid rehousing works for just a limited number of homeless people, she says. Seattle has made $8 million available for rapid rehousing amid skepticism from some homeless-service providers.
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“We should be investing in longer-term support,” Moon said. “I would want to understand the perspectives of people on both sides and move forward from there, but it’s a possibility that there could be changes.”
Durkan has said consistently that Seattle should fund rapid rehousing, as well as other programs, and has been a consistent supporter of the rebidding process initiated under former Mayor Ed Murray, who endorsed her. Durkan said she does not plan to delay or alter it. “We have limited resources and a growing homelessness problem, so we must act with urgency,” Durkan said through a spokeswoman.
Paying for shelter
How much should the city spend on services for the unsheltered? That’s one of dozens of housing-affordability and homelessness-related issues the next mayor will have to wrestle with.
Seattle has increased its spending on homelessness by about $24 million in the past four years, and Mayor Tim Burgess’ budget would add another $2 million, bringing the total up to $63 million a year.
In deciding whether that is enough, the next mayor will face pressure both inside and outside of City Hall.
Moon and Durkan agree that more shelters and low-cost housing are needed — but how to pay for it?
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One idea, floated by City Council members Kirsten Harris-Talley and Mike O’Brien, would apply a 5-cent tax per employee per hour on businesses with annual gross receipts of $5 million or more. If approved, that could generate up to $24 million a year for long- and short-term housing options.
Durkan and Moon are both hesitant.
“Before we talk about raising taxes, I want to make sure that we are using the money that we already have adequately and where we really need it,” Durkan said in a recent interview with The Seattle Times Editorial Board.
Moon said she’s generally supportive of taxing big businesses but worries the current version of the proposal would hurt small businesses employing middle-income workers.
O’Brien believes there are enough votes on the council to approve the proposal, though he acknowledges the details may be tweaked.
With the number of people living without shelter rising, along with the city’s spending, there is increasing pressure to tie performance to city contracts for homeless services.
In a 2016 operating agreement with King County, Seattle agreed to do just that. But performance-based contracting has flared up as a campaign issue amid complaints that some of the measures are unreasonable.
For example, new city contracts will require emergency-shelter providers to connect 40 percent of single adult clients to stable housing. Those that fail to hit the target would face a reduction in funding — prompting complaints from providers about Seattle’s superheated rental market.
The organizations that work directly with the homeless aren’t opposed to accountability measures, said Alison Eisinger, Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness executive director. “But when you’re evaluating success or failure of an intervention, you need to make sure you’re evaluating things that the intervention can affect,” she said.
Both Durkan and Moon say they support performance-based contracting and making the large network of homeless services more efficient.
Asked for specifics, they hedge.
“I would listen to the questions about efficacy among the providers and find common ground,” Moon said. “We have to be really cautious because for a lot of service providers, the kind of results they achieve don’t show up in performance measures.”
Durkan says that abruptly discontinuing even low-performing services could make things worse for some living without shelter.
ln an emailed statement, a representative said Durkan will “work with providers, advocates and other stakeholders to ensure that the city is employing the right metrics for accountability.”
Seattle Human Services Director Catherine Lester said she would advise Seattle’s next mayor to “stay the course” on the performance-based contracting.
Despite some apprehension, many providers receiving city funds were able to improve their scores over the last several months, before the performance measures go into effect, she said. “What that tells me, when we’re paying attention to the data and when they’re paying attention to their practice, is that the ability to meet the target is possible.”