Promising is easy. Delivering is hard.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, Seattle and King County have made many promises about the temporary and permanent housing they intended to open for homeless residents.
The Seattle Times has been tracking those promises, and last year around this time, we reported that fewer than half had been kept.
This year, we look at the fate of the remaining pledges — as well as one new one, made by Mayor Bruce Harrell on the campaign trail.
Progress has been a mixed bag, as some have reached the finish line, while others have fizzled out for a number of reasons.
The unprecedented amount of federal aid in response to the coronavirus that made many of these projects a possibility has dried up or is already spoken for. Far fewer Seattle and King County officials involved were up for reelection.
And the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has taken over most homeless-service contracts around the county in the past year, and it’s now in the driver’s seat for developing most of the county’s response to the ever-growing homelessness crisis.
The homelessness authority has set some ambitious goals — like greatly reducing visible homelessness in downtown Seattle — but those haven’t come with a self-imposed ticking clock.
While running for mayor, Harrell told voters in September 2021 that he would add 2,000 units of “emergency supportive housing” by the end of 2022. He later changed that plan to say his administration would “identify” 2,000 units of shelter rather than “add” units.
As of the end of 2022, the city said, 922 units of shelter and housing are open and an additional 1,143 have been identified and are either under construction or in preparation phases.
Starting in November 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the Seattle City Council earmarked $100,000 to quickly set up about 43 outdoor sinks around the city. But over the course of more than two years, five sinks have been installed.
Clean Hands Collective, which is overseen by Seattle’s street newspaper Real Change, received 60% of the funding, and organizers say the project has moved slowly due to bureaucratic hurdles. Seattle Makers, which received the other 40% of funding, has not installed any sinks so far, according to Shanna Christie, spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities. Seattle Makers members say they have four sinks ready to be installed; they’re just looking for sites.
In September 2021, the city said it would help purchase three new apartment buildings to create permanent housing for people living homeless. It set a goal to have all three buildings filled with tenants by the end of 2021. That didn’t happen. One year later, however, the city has completed its goal. The Low Income Housing Institute owns and operates all three buildings, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
As part of Seattle’s “shelter surge” plan unveiled in fall 2020, the city said it would help up to 231 homeless people living in city-run shelters use short-term funding, called rapid-rehousing dollars, to quickly move into permanent housing. The city then transferred the work to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which was not the agency that made the promise.
According to the authority, 105 households used this housing subsidy in 2022. Since then, 27 households appear to still be enrolled in the voucher program, while 55 households have retained their permanent housing after the rapid-rehousing voucher ended.
An additional 23 households exited the voucher program and did not retain permanent housing, said Claire Guilmette, evaluation and analytics coordinator for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Some could have returned to homelessness, moved in with a family member or just moved to a new location.
Using $60 million of voter-approved Seattle Housing Levy dollars, the city said it would build six affordable apartment buildings to house chronically homeless people. When the plan was first announced, the city set a goal to have 496 out of 588 units open by the end of 2021. But there were no units open by then.
Now, three buildings have opened, adding 247 units, and work is underway to build the remaining three affordable-housing sites, according to Seattle’s Office of Housing.
At the beginning of 2021, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced a fundraising campaign, called “It Takes a Village,” to raise $15 million to double the city’s tiny-house stock. The plan was to add 480 tiny houses within a year.
By the end of 2021, no tiny houses had been built, but Lewis’ team said that fundraising efforts continued, with $2 million in promised state funding and $2.5 million in private pledges secured. Lewis now says the city never took ownership of that money, and the project has since been disbanded. No tiny houses were ever built using the money Lewis raised for “It Takes a Village.”
King County completed more than 35% of its goal to house 1,600 people living homeless by the end of 2022, a significant improvement from the year prior. But it still has a long way to go.
Since King County passed a sales tax in 2020, called Health Through Housing, to help it raise enough money to acquire hotels and apartment buildings, it’s been successful in property acquisition. By the end of 2022, King County had purchased 10 hotels and apartment buildings, totaling nearly 1,200 units. But only six out of the 10 were open. Additionally, the county is paying to operate two additional sites, though it doesn’t own the properties.
County officials say that extended capital improvement timelines, homeless-services workforce shortages and slow permitting have contributed to longer timelines for opening more Health through Housing sites.
King County spokesperson Katie Rogers said that this goal set in 2021 isn’t a priority for the county now that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is fully up and running and has taken over the work of sheltering people in Seattle.