The battle over a Renton hotel housing homeless people during COVID-19 has escalated between county government and the city.
This week, local officials rushed forward legislation that would set a six-month move-out date at the Red Lion Hotel in Renton, where more than 200 homeless people have been staying since April.
It’s the latest example of tough pushback from Seattle’s suburbs on what they see as homelessness policy handed down from county government without their input.
While the agency running the shelter isn’t looking to stay in the Red Lion long term, King County Executive Dow Constantine is currently looking around the county for hotels to buy with money from a newly passed sales tax. Renton, Bellevue, Kent and several smaller cities opted out of that tax this fall in favor of adopting their own taxes to potentially implement their own homelessness plans. Not only does that slim down the amount of money Constantine’s tax can raise by an estimated $18 million, it heats up debate about how much voice suburban cities will get in a planned regional homelessness authority.
This new move from Renton could spell even more problems: At a tense and emotional Renton City Council meeting Monday night, the mayor and council members heard almost an hour of testimony from the community about an emergency ordinance to rewrite Renton zoning code to restrict homeless shelters’ placement and operations.
The council did not discuss the proposed measure after the public comment. It could vote the legislation into law as early as next week, when it comes up for a first reading.
“This ordinance is once again using zoning as a tool to exclude people in ways that are fundamentally inequitable,” said Lindsey Grad, legislative director for the union that represents the shelter’s employees. “It was really low, after yet another hard day of work in the middle of a pandemic, to tell (staff at the shelter) that the work they do is essentially being banned.”
Many people who spoke had only learned about the 41-page ordinance that day. The debate was so passionate that at one point, a commenter was apparently muted mid-speech.
Renton leaders have been sparring with King County over the shelter since April, when the county moved almost the entire population of the downtown Seattle Morrison Hotel shelter — many of whom have disabilities, serious mental illness or substance use disorders — to the Red Lion close to downtown Renton.
It wasn’t long before Renton businesses, officials and the mayor began to complain about a precipitous increase in 911 calls in the immediate area, which — though lower than what the shelter generated in Seattle — was much higher than local police said they’d ever seen, according to a Seattle Times story in May.
In June, Renton leaders told the county, the shelter operator and the investors’ group that owns the hotel that they were in violation of the city’s zoning codes. The county appealed that decision to the Renton hearing examiner, who ruled that the county needed to apply to the city for a permit or leave — but also that the city’s zoning code was vague when it came to homeless shelters.
As a smaller suburb, Renton has never had to deal with a situation like this, according to Chip Vincent, the city’s administrator of community and economic development, who helped write the legislation. Almost all of the city’s shelters are in churches or facilities like City Hall, where they are not the building’s primary use. Currently, being a homeless shelter would be considered the Red Lion’s primary use.
“Too much of the focus of this has been on the Red Lion, when the reality is the Red Lion forced us to reevaluate,” Vincent said. “The code could be clearer.”
But the requirements proposed would be hard for a nonprofit service provider to meet, especially one that runs on a shoestring budget. Those include submitting a map of routes staff would encourage clients to use to travel around the city, a plan to maintain “site aesthetics” by cleaning graffiti and picking up trash, a code of conduct that includes not using illegal drugs and a description of consequences for breaking the code of conduct, among many other things.
“It would make it very difficult for a provider to successfully set up and get permitted an operation there,” said Dan Malone, executive director of the shelter’s operator, Downtown Emergency Services Center. “It’s a very detailed process that one has to go through, and then there are just tons of requirements.”
It is unclear whether the legislation would require Downtown Emergency Services Center to move or simply reduce the hotel’s population by half.
Either way, if this legislation does pass, Malone hopes he will have found a hotel to buy by the time the six-month expiration date arrives, but said that they haven’t found a good site yet.
In a letter submitted during public comment, local health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said the pandemic would most likely not be over by June 1 and the risk of transmission and severe symptoms among people living outside or in large-scale shelters will remain high.
“The proposed ordinance will risk the health of the homeless persons now safely staying at the Red Lion, and the community,” Duchin said.
Diane Dobson, CEO of the Renton Chamber of Commerce, was the only public commenter to defend the legislation. She pointed out that many speaking against it worked in the homeless services sector or advocacy, or for the county or the investors’ group that owns the hotel.
“They’re not Renton residents,” Dobson said. “They’re not in our community, and they do not live with the ramifications of the decisions being made about the community.”
But some Renton residents did comment.
“I was concerned that heading into the holiday season we would show some empathy,” Paul Hagan said. “(I) can’t think of anything else we should be spending our time on than this, again, showing a severe lack of empathy for human beings.”