The Metropolitan King County Council voted Tuesday to implement a 0.1% sales tax to fund housing for people who have been chronically homeless, even after some of the county’s largest cities dropped out of the plan by quickly passing their own versions of the tax.
On Monday evening, Bellevue became the largest King County city to pass its own 0.1% sales tax, bypassing the county’s collection of the revenue for its homelessness plan. Bellevue joined North Bend and Maple Valley, which also voted to implement the tax Monday night, following votes in Renton, Kent, Issaquah, Covington and Snoqualmie to pass a solo tax.
As a result, King County is now millions of dollars short of the original plan King County Executive Dow Constantine envisioned for quickly housing an estimated 2,000 people in the county who have a disability and have struggled with homelessness for years. Estimates of people who struggle with chronic homelessness in King County range from 3,355 to 6,500, many living outside.
The council voted to move forward on the sales tax, 8-1, with Councilmember Reagan Dunn submitting the lone “no” vote.
“What we’re doing is what the public has been clamoring for, which is helping get people off the street, out of doorways and alleyways, and into housing with support,” said Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who represents Renton and Kent. “It will save criminal justice costs. It will save medical costs and will literally save lives.”
Councilmember Claudia Balducci, whose district includes Bellevue, said she was initially skeptical of implementing a new sales tax.
“But when I saw this proposal I came around,” Balducci said. “I came around because it is a major opportunity, maybe the first really big opportunity that we’ve had since 2015 to make a visible, meaningful, large dent in chronic homelessness, which plagues our county.”
Homeless advocates have come out in strong support of the county’s plan, which originally proposed a $400 million bonding package to purchase hotels, motels and nursing homes for supportive housing as the economic downturn allowed.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature gave counties the authority to pass a 0.1% sales tax for affordable housing and behavioral health supports by council action. Counties had until Sept. 30 to pass the tax legislation first, after which cities could implement their own version of the tax instead, if they chose to do so.
Constantine proposed the $400 million plan Sept. 22, but the county failed to meet the Sept. 30 deadline to vote on the tax. After Sept. 30 passed, cities began to enact their own taxes in place of the county’s.
With the cities choosing to implement their own taxes, Councilmember Rod Dembowski expressed doubt that the county would be able to house 2,000 people as originally projected, but said he was optimistic.
“I don’t know that we’ll get the 2,000 units under the initial plan because of the paring back,” Dembowski said. “Maybe we’ll work in partnership with some of the cities to bring their dollars into the fold, but I think it’s going to be a lot of units and can be really brought on quickly.”
The decisions by the cities that chose to exempt themselves from the county tax came after months of tension between suburban cities and the county over the creation of the Regional Homeless Authority as well as the county’s emergency placement of homeless people from overcrowded shelters in local hotels and motels.
In discussions on city councils throughout the county over the last week, several suburban city council members framed the vote as a way to leverage negotiations with the county over the projects it decides to fund in their cities. Some cities included language in their legislation that also allowed for the possibility of pooling funds with the county.
“Really it’s to reserve a seat at the table for the conversation, so we as cities have a say,” Kent Mayor Dana Ralph told council members at a meeting Oct. 6, before the vote to levy the tax.
Other cities rejected passing their own tax or discussed a tax proposal but did not take a vote. Federal Way, the fifth-largest city in the county, decided to forgo its own tax after concluding that the revenue collected would be too small to develop a meaningful amount of affordable housing on its own.