King County Executive Dow Constantine and Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone will jointly announce Tuesday the purchase of a former Extended Stay America hotel in Renton for $28.6 million.
It’s a rare moment of unity on this issue for the mayor and executive. Last year, Renton sued the county after Constantine quickly moved a downtown Seattle mass shelter into a Renton Red Lion hotel at the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, the Renton City Council passed a law to get shelter residents to leave over the course of this year.
This new purchase, with an appraised taxable value in 2020 of $13.7 million, will serve in some ways to replace the controversial Red Lion for good, though it’s only half the size and the Red Lion residents will likely move elsewhere, according to the county.
But now that it’s clear that rooms in hotels are better for homeless people’s mental and physical health than bunk beds on crowded floors, more homeless advocates and nonprofit leaders have pushed government leaders to stick with the model. An infusion of millions in federal funding has made that seem more possible.
And local government and business leaders seem to be coming together to buy hotels.
For instance, on Monday morning at Third and Union in Seattle, the former site of a cluster of tents, City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, the head of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, nonprofit leaders and academics touted the fact that the 33 people who lived within the two blocks had moved into hotel rooms through a federally and locally funded partnership between several nonprofits.
Those hotel rooms are only being leased, but the city of Seattle is trying to leverage federal and state money to buy close to $100-million worth of already-existing housing — whether that’s hotels or something else.
Constantine hopes to use county sales tax dollars to buy enough hotels for 1,600 homeless people countywide by the end of next year. Last month, he announced the county is buying the Inn at Queen Anne in Seattle, which is already full of formerly homeless people who moved in after the pandemic.
The recent support of business leaders and cities like Renton is significant. Pavone and Renton’s council, along with seven other cities in King County, also voted against using money generated in their cities by Constantine’s tax for homeless housing.
“If we can deploy all of that relatively quickly, and effectively, we can really begin to really turn the tide on this,” Constantine said during a Monday tour of the hotel with Renton’s mayor. “I’m very excited about the fact that this is not simply layering on a little bit more good intentions, but it’s actually an opportunity to change the conversation and begin to create the expectation that no one will be living on the streets.”
Both the county and the city will have to move quickly. As Washington state reopens, tourism returns and hotels will get booked again. Owners will be much less willing to sell, said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“They should move as fast as they can,” Berg said. “There’s a danger that the deals that are available now will disappear.”
Finding the correct speed at which to move has been a sticking point for local leaders for a while, especially Constantine: He’s been criticized by Renton leaders and Sen. Joe Nguyen, his challenger in this year’s county election, for not spending the time to get enough input from communities that would host shelters. But at the same time, if he and the County Council had moved quicker to pass their sales tax to buy hotels, cities like Renton wouldn’t have had the option to opt out.
That said, localities are still very open to working with the county on buying hotels now, according to Leo Flor, Constantine’s head of community and human services.
“I have yet to encounter any city that is saying, ‘This isn’t our problem, go away,'” Flor said. “With every city, the conversation — and cities are different places on this — the conversation is, where is the right place? What is our role as the city versus your role as the county?”