In the aftermath of the ferocious fight over the Seattle City Council’s proposed head tax in 2018, homeless rights advocate and lawyer Sara Rankin came to speak to Visit Seattle, a coalition of Seattle downtown business leaders.
“I thought — ‘pretty brave,'” said Chad Mackay, owner of El Gaucho and other restaurants and resorts around Washington and Oregon. Mackay and others in the business community had written checks for the campaign against the head tax; Rankin and others had hoped the tax could pay for housing and homeless services for the record numbers of people living outside.
But here she was. And at the end of her presentation, Mackay had realized there was one thing he and Rankin agreed on: People were fighting most about one subset of the homeless population — the chronically homeless, visible on the streets, who often struggle with mental health and substance use — and it would be cheaper in the end to house these people than to watch many of them them cycle from hospital beds to jail beds.
“I raised my hand. ‘What do we need to do?'” Mackay said. “And that conversation took off from that meeting.”
Two years later, Mackay, Rankin, and a small team of people from Seattle’s nonprofit and business community — including Matt Galvin, co-owner of Pagliacci Pizza, and Howard S. Wright III, chairman and founder of Seattle Hospitality Group — have formed the Third Door Coalition, out of the idea that there’s an “alternate path” where both proponents of taxing businesses to build affordable housing, and business leaders frustrated with chronic homelessness, could potentially agree.
It comes in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that threatens both Seattle’s tourism industry and people living on the edge of homelessness — and meanwhile, members of the Seattle City Council have brought forward another version of the head tax.
The group announced a proposal Tuesday to build 6,500 units of permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people in King County in a five-year time frame with $1.676 billion.
However, to make it happen, business and governments have to come up with the money: The proposal, which proponents describe as a loose framework, describes the state providing a fifth of the funding, King County 30%, and the county’s cities providing 10% of the funding, with the remaining 40% coming from “business leaders.”
That could come in the form of donations, or possibly from a “tax revenue piece,” Mackay said, not ruling out some version of a tax on businesses. It could also be a fund matching private donations with government money, in the style of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship, Mackay said.
In an online news conference Monday, Mackay and the coalition were joined by local elected leaders from the Seattle City Council and the state House of Representatives, including Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.
“The good part about the Third Door Coalition is they proactively brought together business leaders to problem-solve,” Chopp said in an interview after the news conference. “Some of those are going to be donating, but I think at the same time people realize we need to set up progressive revenue sources.”
Seattle City council members Tammy Morales and Kshama Sawant brought forward what many called a new version of 2018’s head tax, but the city council shelved its consideration of the tax earlier this month in light of a proclamation from Gov. Jay Inslee restricting public agencies’ discussion of non-COVID-19-related legislation.
Morales wasn’t at the news conference for the proposal, but said she was glad it acknowledged the scope of the problem and the money needed to fix it.
“If we move forward with the conversations they have planned,” Morales said, “then my hope that there is also an acknowledgment that the city needs to find a more equitable way to finance these kinds of public services.”
But the coalition also asks for government to do its part in loosening regulations around building permanent supportive housing. The proposal suggests cheapening and expediting the construction of permanent supportive housing by creating a distinct dwelling unit type in the land-use code, reducing permit and hookup fees, removing costly space requirements such as bicycle parking, and reducing the cost of land by granting use rights to developers with preferential terms and prioritizing surplus government land for permanent supportive housing, among other suggestions.
“There’s a million nuances to undertaking a major social change like this, but the bottom line is, we know the solutions, we have a really good sense of the need, and if people come together, we know we can replicate that solution to address the need,” said Debbie Thiele, a member of the coalition and the managing director of the Western region for the Corporation for Supportive Housing.
Members of the coalition acknowledged that the future is a big unknown at the moment: In five years, it’s possible the gap will have moved further and the target will be harder to reach because of the economic effects of COVID-19 and the rate at which homeless people are getting older — one study says the number of homeless people over 65 could triple by 2030.
But Rankin, the homeless advocate, said the proposal is a much better long-term solution than what the city has been doing with mass sheltering, where COVID-19 has infected scores of homeless people.
“We don’t have a crystal ball, on exactly what will happen to our numbers in the future,” Rankin said. “(But) the responses we take to this pandemic are going to be the structure we inherit later. So if we’re going to be tossing a lot of money and time and effort at huge congregate shelters that contradict CDC guidance… that’s not a future we want to inherit.”