As the last guests checked out of the Aurora Avenue Holiday Inn and Suites on July 6, staff called people with reservations to tell them they were having their stays refunded, according to a county spokesperson.
The hotel was closed. Like six others around the county, it’s about to be turned into housing for homeless people.
The county got the keys the next day, and announced the purchase with a press conference the day after. They’d moved so fast, the fridges were still stocked with yogurt, muffins, sausage and biscuits for continental breakfasts.
In just a few months, using bonded money from a new sales tax, King County has bought five hotels for more than $102 million and entered agreements to purchase two more plus an apartment building for likely close to $100 million more. Several have sold at many millions more than their 2020 appraised value, according to King County property records.
At more than 800 rooms in all, that’s more supportive housing for homeless people than it built in 2019 and 2020 combined, according to data from the state’s Department of Commerce, and more than double what was built around the rest of the state — and it’s much cheaper than building new housing, according to the county.
There is more to come — but while the increase in capacity will make a sizeable dent in the number of tents in parks and green spaces around the county, it likely won't be enough.
During the pandemic, a somewhat broad consensus has developed across King County leadership that if the Seattle area wants to deal with its homelessness crisis, leaders will have to build housing for people living outside with serious mental illness or substance use disorders before those people can get the help they need from a state behavioral health system that is exceptionally hard to navigate from the streets.
But building housing for homeless people is expensive and takes a long time. So after the coronavirus pandemic hit, causing hotels to empty out and a new flood of relief money from the federal government to flow in, local governments have been provided a new opportunity: Buy empty hotels and fill them with homeless people.
"Given how long it takes to build housing, if you can buy 800 units with the stroke of a pen, it’s huge," said Gregg Colburn, a real estate professor at the University of Washington and author of the forthcoming book "Homelessness is a Housing Problem." "If [King County Executive] Dow [Constantine] can keep gobbling up hotels and getting it done politically, go for it."
Constantine has formed an uneasy political alliance with suburban cities — who are often skeptical of focusing so much on housing to end homelessness — to make the buying spree happen.
Half of the buildings bought so far have been outside of Seattle, in Auburn, Renton, Redmond and Federal Way. Yet local mayors, some of whom have passed laws in recent months to restrict camping or the building of shelters, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with county leaders to celebrate the openings.
"We expect accountability from everyone involved in this process, from government, to the funders, to the service providers, and to those that are receiving services," Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said at a hotel opening last week.
Calling it "compassionate accountability," Backus also supported a law passed in April that upped the consequences of camping on public property in Auburn from a civil infraction to a criminal penalty. Homeless advocates decried this move as a step backward and an effort to get homeless people to leave the city instead of trying to help them.
Last fall, eight cities, including Bellevue and Federal Way, opted to divert control of the sales-tax money away from the county, taking millions away from the plan and cutting the estimated number of rooms the tax could create by 400.
In Federal Way last week, pushback to Constantine's plan remained. During the first town hall meeting since the coronavirus struck, many residents expressed anger over rising homelessness in the city and some asked city leaders to keep the former Extended Stay America from opening as homeless housing, the Federal Way Mirror reported.
But Constantine, who is running for reelection, intends to continue buying hotels and buildings next year to bring the total to 1,600 rooms countywide.
Constantine's opponent, Democratic state Sen. Joe Nguyen, said that officials should be pursuing hotels as one of many options, such as funding tiny homes, repurposing King County open land and leasing private spaces.
"Simply buying hotels won't solve homelessness," Nguyen said in a statement.
Seattle city leaders will be looking for their own buildings with almost $100 million in state and local funds.
All this will likely not be enough, however. A 2020 count of homeless people across the county estimated that on a given night in January, there were more than 3,300 people living outside with significant barriers to getting and staying in housing, including serious mental illness and addiction.
That's just on one night. An exhaustive report released last year, that included input from the public sector, people who've been homeless and consultants at McKinsey & Co. estimated the region needs to build 6,500 supportive housing units for chronically homeless people, and an additional 4,000 for people who cycle between jail, institutions and other housing.
Washington also lags behind Oregon and California. Before King County even announced its first hotel buy, California had bought nearly 6,000 units in 120 buildings across the state at a cost of nearly $800 million.
Building or buying enough housing for the region's hardest to house would likely require a billion-dollar regional housing bond like Los Angeles and metropolitan Portland have passed in the last several years, some experts, homeless advocates and even candidates for Seattle mayor have said.
Constantine said last week during a hotel opening in Auburn that he would like to see a regionwide source of housing money, but he's weary of using sales and property taxes to get there. He also pointed out that owning property is not always a sign of wealth.
"So we try to be careful about that," Constantine said.