Lawmakers from across King County unanimously voted Thursday to advance the creation of a regional homelessness authority, even after last-minute changes to the plan over the Thanksgiving weekend prompted fierce outcry from critics.
The legislation still establishes one consolidated homeless authority for the county, but what that authority looks like and how it governs has changed dramatically over the past week.
The original plan, worked out over several months, would have put more power in the hands of homelessness experts, with the hope of insulating major policy decisions from political football. The plan passed Thursday out of the county’s Regional Policy Committee (RPC), which represents elected officials from across the county, now gives a greater share of power to suburban cities and to elected officials in general.
But its final passage is by no means a sure bet: Now the legislation faces both the Metropolitan King County and Seattle City councils, which are not guaranteed to pass it before the councils’ last sessions in December and when a new crop of council members start their terms next month.
That became clear hours after the vote, in a separate Seattle City Council committee meeting. Several council members said they felt blindsided by the magnitude of the policy committee’s changes.
“I don’t want to sit here and create another Committee to End Homelessness or another All Home,” said Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold, referring to the county’s existing regional homelessness agency, which has basically no power to implement its recommendations.
Thursday morning, just before the vote, King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles offered a frank explanation for the changes, responding to those who argued that lawmakers should revert to the original legislation.
“What was transmitted to us was not going to go through, as much as many of us would have liked that to happen,” she said.
Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez, who also sits on the RPC, warned that sending the legislation in its current state to the City Council would be met with challenges.
“We are in complete agreement to get this over the finish line by December 31, but I will let you know that our council, particularly since we are putting in a large amount of money, $73 million, will have a lot of questions, concerns and some amendments,” Juarez said. “And I think we should be prepared for that.”
The new entity’s total budget is expected to be around $132 million.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine pushed for the creation of a regional authority in late 2018 after consultants concluded that dysfunction stemming from the fragmented homeless-services system had been impeding progress on reducing the homeless population.
The original legislation sent to the Regional Policy Committee in late summer came after nearly two years of discussions with consultants, human-service providers, businesses, philanthropists, union leaders and people who had experienced homelessness themselves, some of whom spoke against the latest version of the authority during public comment Thursday.
“I ask that the policy committee not change anything that has been committed to you,” said Harold Odom, with the Lived Experience Coalition. “You spent all that money on it, and now you’re going to change it.”
Colleen Laing, with United Way of King County, urged committee members to “stick with the plan that we have.” Keeping the changes would “leave governance exposed to NIMBYism and influence by providers,” she said.
Changes to the plan
The plan to create a regional homelessness authority underwent a series of major changes in the past week. One shut down the authority’s potential ability to levy taxes.
Negotiations shifted the authority’s structure from a public-development authority, which cannot now levy taxes under state law, but could if state law were to change, to an independent agency created by interlocal agreement, which could not.
Another change shifted the balance of power from a Seattle and King County-dominant “steering committee” with limited capabilities to a “governing committee” which gave suburban cities the same amount of voting power as Seattle elected officials.
The new committee with elected officials also wields more power: It can fire the authority’s CEO with a nine-vote supermajority and amend budgets.
Seattle’s delegation to the Regional Policy Committee pushed for an amendment Thursday that would have required an 80% majority of the vote to fire the CEO as well as amend the budget and plans, but it failed.
During the meeting, outgoing longtime County Councilmember Larry Gossett successfully put forward an amendment to require the homelessness authority’s implementation board, a committee of experts, to reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the county. The same amendment required that the governing committee “strive” to reflect the county’s demographics.
Seattle pushes back
At the Seattle Select Committee on Homelessness and Housing Affordability on Thursday afternoon, hours after the policy committee vote, Councilmembers M. Lorena González and Herbold were particularly concerned the new entity would only centralize power with elected officials as opposed to subject-matter experts — going against one of the very reasons for forming the new authority in the first place.
Council members zeroed in on the fact that the new plan would essentially give a small number of elected officials a huge sway over policy decisions made by homeless and housing experts.
They also questioned whether suburban cities in King County, which often lean more conservative, should have as much influence over a budget primarily funded by Seattle.
“Should municipalities who want to primarily or solely focus on non-evidence based strategies to address homelessness be able to qualify to receive money from these pooled resources?” González asked. “And the answer for me is no, they should not. If they want to fund those punitive programs, they need to use their own resources to do that.”
The Seattle City Council won’t take up the proposal until next week. The King County Council will consider the legislation Wednesday.
Seattle Times Project Homeless Editor Vianna Davila contributed to this report.