Renton City Council voted Monday night on rules that could make sheltering homeless people in the city significantly harder. The consequences will affect people living in a Red Lion Hotel in the short term, and could impact the region’s homelessness strategy long term.
Renton City Council passed emergency legislation Monday night that tightens city regulations around where and how homeless shelters can operate, and will require more than 200 homeless people temporarily living in a local hotel to move — half of them by June, and the rest by January 2022.
The 5-2 vote is the culmination of months of legal fighting between the King County government, which paid to move the hotel residents out of a crowded shelter in downtown Seattle and into the Renton Red Lion Hotel after COVID-19 hit, and Renton’s City Hall and business leaders, who complain that the county saddled them with mentally ill or troublesome people who are hurting nearby businesses and scaring Renton residents.
But the vote worries some advocates who see it as an indication that Seattle’s suburbs might not be willing to cooperate on a forming plan to work on homelessness regionally.
“It’s not the intention of the administration to kick these folks out,” Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone said. “We do believe that it’s important for Renton to be part of this regional solution — but I don’t know that we’ve found success yet. If this is going to be a long-term solution, if this isn’t just warehousing individuals, we need to look at this holistically.”
The legislation’s passage is a loss for King County: Not only have public-health officials sent letters to Renton’s council asking the city to vote it down, it’s another example of how County Executive Dow Constantine can’t get suburban cities on board with a strategy for homelessness.
It’s also a potential loss for homeless advocates, who see it as a harbinger of more troubles to come for their hopes to buy hotels elsewhere in the county using money from a newly passed tax. This could mean the cities where those hotels are could follow suit and create more restrictive zoning laws.
Ed Prince, a City Council member in Renton who voted for the ordinance, was optimistic Tuesday. He sits on the governing board of the regional authority with the county executive and several other people who have been homeless who spoke against the legislation on Monday night.
He believes there needs to be better dialogue between the county and its suburban cities — and he thinks there will be.
“I think if we have open and honest conversation or what both sides felt like was open and honest conversation, we wouldn’t be where we are today, or where we were last night,” Prince said. “The biggest misinterpretation is that last night was the ending. Last night was the beginning.”
But it’s not clear yet if it’s a loss for the people living in the hotel: City Council members indicated last week they would change the legislation’s move-out date if the county or nonprofit that operates the shelter couldn’t find another place by then. And the county and the city are in the middle of a legal battle, currently sitting in King County Superior Court, over whether the city even has the power to enforce their zoning laws during a pandemic state emergency.
“We’re definitely not giving up,” said Dan Malone, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which ran the downtown Seattle shelter and now runs the hotel. He didn’t know what to make of statements by some Renton City Council members that the dates weren’t “etched in stone” and could be changed.
“I don’t know what they mean when they say that while at the same time they’re passing a law that literally ensconces numbers and dates in it. But it does suggest that maybe they’re not committed to the idea that we would actually get kicked out.”
But for Renton residents, this was clearly a question of whether the shelter should stay or go: For more than 90 minutes on Monday night, dozens of Renton residents and advocates for homeless people weighed in via public comment on Zoom — many against the ordinance. Several pointed out that the hotel residents’ lives have greatly improved since moving from a crowded shelter to individual rooms.
“What I want from my government is to look after people who need it the most,” said Keith Jackson, a Renton resident and small business owner. “I’m getting along just fine, but there are people who need help. And I am delighted we are helping people less than a mile from where I live.”
Others pointed out that police say they have seen an unprecedented number of calls to the area surrounding the Red Lion. In May, a shelter resident apparently struggling with her mental health entered a home 27 blocks away and picked up a 2-year-old boy before his father hit her and forced her out. Last month, a man who had been staying at the hotel for three weeks set a fire in his room and was charged with first-degree arson.
David Smith, a landlord and property owner in Renton’s downtown core, said he’s more worried about the people who get ejected from the hotel by shelter staff and then have nowhere to go.
“Where do they go?” Smith said. “They spill out onto our streets and cause problems.”
The legislation was originally based on land-use code in Bellevue, and could be an example of how difficult siting a shelter could be in Renton. Bellevue’s zoning requirements for shelters are extensive, according to David Bowling, who runs Congregations for the Homeless, a men’s shelter that’s been in churches or stopgap settings for years while the process to build a permanent shelter inches forward.
Bowling’s staff spent hundreds of hours in the last year to submit a pre-application, which requires things like putting together a “good neighbor agreement advisory committee” with as many as eight residents who live within a mile of the proposed location and up to three representatives of businesses within a mile, among many other things.
“Bellevue may be one of the toughest places to site a shelter,” said Bowling, adding that’s with a City Council that is on board with the shelter. “If you had a city or council that wanted to make this really, really hard to make this happen, they probably could.”