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King County continues to buy hotels and apartment buildings, trying to meet a self-imposed goal of housing 1,600 homeless people. But it has yet to meet half of its occupancy target as five of its 10 properties remain vacant.

Just months away from the new year, the county has used more than $230 million from a sales tax passed in 2020 on properties in Seattle and five suburban cities as part of its Health Through Housing initiative. The county is in the final stages of buying a new, 35-unit apartment building in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.  

Its taken months — and sometimes more than a year — to open the properties the county already owns.

As of Sept. 1, 357 people were living in four of the 10 Health Through Housing buildings purchased by King County. An additional 118 people are living in two apartment buildings in Seattle whose operations are funded by the county, but are owned by the city, totaling 475. A fifth building is being used to house refugees.

Some of these investments, such as the Capitol Hill building, are also intended to further county equity goals. If purchased, the apartments will house people who are queer, transgender, Black, Native, and other people of color. The sale is expected to be completed by early October.

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“That’s within our initiative to annually reduce racial disproportionality within chronic homeless communities,” said Mario Williams-Sweet, a major initiatives manager for King County.

Although Black people are 7% of King County’s population, they represent one-quarter of the county’s homeless population, according to the 2022 Point-In-Time count. American Indian, Alaska Native and other Indigenous people make up 9% of the county’s homeless population, compared to 1% of the general population.

The county says it wants to have residents move in by the end of the year.

In the early months of the pandemic, the county capitalized on the havoc COVID wreaked on the travel industry. In October 2020, the county approved a 0.1% sales tax to take advantage of a hurting market and buy vacant hotels as well as new apartment buildings. County Executive Dow Constantine announced a plan to use them for permanent housing with social services attached for people who have been homeless for a long time and who have a disabling physical, mental or behavioral health condition, including substance-use disorder, that creates extra challenges around securing and maintaining stable housing.

In its first year, the county estimates the operational cost of the existing sites will be $25,000 per unit. The sales tax, which is a permanent revenue source, funds the operations at every site. Some homeless hotel programs around the country have had to close recently because they ran out of government funding, but Katie Rogers, spokesperson for the county’s Department of Community and Human Services, said the county’s tax revenue is designed to prevent that.

So far, the acquisition part of the plan has worked. After the Capitol Hill sale, the county still has to purchase at least two more sites, totaling 13 properties, Rogers said.

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But moving people in has been harder.

At the beginning of the year, 180 people were living in two buildings. At the time, county officials pointed to shortages in the homelessness workforce for the delays. And not much has changed.

“There are not enough people doing this work. And there are not enough people who can afford to do this work. So we’ve got to take that head-on,” said Leo Flor, director of community and human services.

In addition, King County said subcontractors hired to make modifications to buildings have taken longer than expected and some locations have required more time to engage with community members over the new sites. 

Some properties have been caught up in community or legal wrangling.

In March, King County purchased its 10th property, in Kirkland, for $28.7 million, near the Eastside Preparatory School.

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Soon after, a group of parents and residents, called Keep Kids Safe, sued the county and the city of Kirkland, saying they didn’t hold public meetings that were required before the property was purchased. Because of this, the lawsuit claimed, the 121-unit purchase should be voided.

The lawsuit spawned turmoil that lasted into August, and was ultimately dismissed.

In Renton, the City Council passed legislation that required the residents of a county-funded former Red Lion to move out, and placed regulations around where and how homeless shelters can operate.

Since then, the county has returned to Renton, opening a Health Through Housing site in a former Extended Stay America. It creates permanent supportive housing for more than 100 people. At every former hotel, including the site in Renton, up to 60% of units will be available for homeless people in the city in which it is located. 

“It started off as a disagreement,” Flor said of the county’s efforts to house people in hotels in Renton, “and what it resulted in is what I think is going to be a perpetual partnership.”  

At most of the Health Through Housing sites, residents will get to stay indefinitely. But so far, three of the opened sites don’t meet the county’s “permanent supportive” housing status since they don’t have certain amenities, such as cooking units. These units are considered “emergency” housing.

People living in emergency housing in Seattle can move into other permanent supportive housing sites around the county if they can secure a spot or they can live in their current home indefinitely. The county will eventually retrofit the sites with the necessary amenities to be brought up to permanent supportive housing status.

The county says that four more Health Through Housing properties, totaling 318 units, will open by the end of the year. And that it expects two more to open by the end of March 2023.