The Seattle City Council gave its final approval to create a regional homelessness authority Monday afternoon, bringing to close a yearslong effort to consolidate the county’s disjointed homeless services system under one umbrella.
The 5-1 vote came down to the wire, with city and county councils rushing to pass the legislation authorizing the organization before a new batch of council members take their seats next year. That meant, at least for one City Council member, adopting measures she did not entirely support.
Councilmember M. Lorena González said she supported the creation of a regional authority, but would be voting “no” because of “significant flaws” in the legislation.
Among her concerns was the inability to generate any new revenue through the authority itself in order to address homelessness and the fact that elected officials will, in her view, have too much power over budgetary and planning decisions.
“Politics have already taken ahold in this structure,” González said.
Officials have been working to create the authority in order to streamline homeless services in King County, which are spread across six city, county and federal agencies, with the hope of helping the system run more efficiently and, ultimately, reduce homelessness. It is expected to have a $132 million budget, with $75 million coming from Seattle, which includes $2 million in startup costs, and $57 million from the county.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine are expected to sign the final agreement creating the authority, after which the new authority’s governing committee, a group of elected officials and people who have experienced homelessness, will need to meet within 90 days. A search will begin for the authority’s CEO. King County and Seattle staffers whose work falls under the new homelessness authority will be relocated to a new space.
“Today is a historic day,” Durkan said in a statement. “After many years of talk, today we act as a region to move forward together to provide comprehensive services using evidence-based practices and centering people with lived experience of homelessness, to bring more people inside.”
In his statement, Constantine acknowledged that the legislation differed from what he proposed but added “it remains a bold, innovative response to our goal of unifying a fractured homelessness system.”
Both King County and Seattle have committed to keep those staffers on the payroll until the end of 2020, said PROTEC17 union representative Shaun van Eyck, but major uncertainty about how the new authority will be organized still looms. Van Eyck said he was disappointed that an amendment guaranteeing job offers at the new authority to current employees didn’t end up in the final version of the legislation. PROTEC17 represents staffers in Seattle’s homeless-services investments division, as well as some employees in King County government and its coordinating homeless services agency.
The decision came the same day that All Home King County, the county’s coordinating agency on homelessness, announced the resignation of its executive director, Kira Zylstra. Zylstra, who had led the agency since February of 2018 as acting director, resigned after a performer danced in pasties at All Home’s annual conference last week.
The future of the regional response continues to be built: The businesses and philanthropies that also shape the region’s homelessness response will continue their work through a new, separate group, called We Are In. The group, which launched in November, is being funded by the Campion Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Raikes Foundation and the Ballmer Group. (Campion, the Gates Foundation and Raikes Foundation are all Project Homeless funders.)
“The legislation today reflects months, if not years, of negotiation and compromise among Seattle, the county and Sound Cities [Association],” said Erik Houser, director of communications and public affairs for the Campion Foundation.
“And the thing that separates it from what the rest of the country has done is it centers the expertise of people who have experienced homelessness,” Houser said.
He stressed, however, that the authority was only one part of the region’s overall homelessness response. We Are In, he said, aimed to tackle both homelessness prevention and building affordable housing.
Passing the final plan at the City Council Monday did not come without controversy.
The original plan endorsed by Durkan and Constantine gave limited power to the group of elected officials overseeing the authority. The idea was to protect its budget and policies, developed by a second group of experts, from political interference.
Last-minute negotiations, however, gave more power to the elected officials, and to suburban cities in particular. Seattle City Council members criticized the compromise and added a list of “expectations” tied to the ordinance approving the authority, but ultimately passed the legislation.
Mandy Wolff, a member of King County’s Youth Action Board of young people who have experienced homelessness, said she was worried that people with lived experience only made up a quarter of the votes on the governing committee — the same amount that suburban cities had. But she was hopeful that the plan would continue to be tweaked after its passage.
“It’s really important that we make sure we’re doing the right things to fix our system, rather than just throwing money at the problem and hoping it goes away,” she said.
Both Durkan and Constantine committed to address some of the council’s concerns when the governing committee, the group of elected officials and people who have been homeless that oversees the work of experts, meets to set its bylaws. In a letter to González, Durkan and Constantine said they would work to make sure that it would take a minimum of eight votes of the 12-person governing committee to change major plans, policies and goals developed by the group of experts. Right now, a minimum of six people on the governing committee could change the experts’ plans.
The executives also said they would incorporate language in the bylaws and master agreement that makes sure the authority adheres to “data-driven decisions” and “an evidence-based, housing-first orientation.”
Within six months of the first implementation board meeting, the authority will have developed a plan to implement homeless services. Within 18 months, the authority will have worked to create a five-year plan.
Seattle Times Project Homeless Editor Vianna Davila contributed to this report.