As the U.S. struggles to contain runaway COVID-19 cases across the country, Seattle will invest approximately $60 million through 2021 to quickly build housing for people who are chronically homeless, city leaders announced Wednesday.
The investment by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration is the most the city has ever spent in a single year on permanent supportive housing — units with wraparound services for people with a disabling condition who have been homeless longer than a year or who have been homeless four times in three years. The move follows a push from business leaders and homeless advocates who say that investing in enough of this kind of housing could effectively end chronic homelessness, the center of long-running and highly politicized debates over visible homelessness on Seattle’s streets.
To make the shift, the city will use all of the rental production and preservation funds from the voter-approved Seattle Housing Levy through 2021 to make an upfront $60 million investment in six new buildings of 599 units for chronically homeless people, most of whom live unsheltered, according to the county’s 2020 homeless count.
The spending is expected to more than double the number of permanent supportive housing units the city typically funds each year, though the total number of units created would still fall short of the estimated regional need.
“COVID-19 has forced us to reconsider: How do we do more?” Mayor Jenny Durkan said at a Wednesday press conference announcing the investments. “How do we do it more quickly?”
After COVID-19 restrictions closed down businesses and limited in-person interactions in March, encampments popped up across the city clustered around the few resources available for people living unsheltered. Lack of sufficient hygiene and sanitation resources have at times created even more desperate situations for people outside.
“We know that the thousands of individuals who are experiencing homelessness in Seattle and across the state could not stay home,” Seattle Office of Housing Director Emily Alvarado said of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order in response to the outbreak.
She added: “And the trauma of living homeless falls disproportionately on Black, Indigenous [people] and people of color.”
A decision from the City Council last week to defund the Navigation Team, the group of police officers and outreach workers who try to connect people to shelter before removing the encampments, has added pressure for the city to come up with a new plan to address homelessness outdoors. The team had largely stopped removing encampments in recent months, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommended, but it remains unclear what the city’s strategy for encampments will be.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Durkan said she believed the cuts would limit outreach, but didn’t offer specifics on what the city would do next.
“We’ve been very conscious about not moving people unless there was a public safety or public health risk, and that policy will stay in place,” Durkan said. “But right now, with the budget that’s been passed, things will change and we’ll have to assess what resources are available.”
In recent months, a self-described “unlikely alliance” of local business leaders, health care providers, researchers and homeless advocates has been pushing the city and county to go in big on the permanent supportive housing strategy to end chronic homelessness in Seattle and King County. In May, the group, known as the Third Door Coalition, released a proposal asserting that the region could end its chronic homelessness in five years through creating or securing 6,500 units of this kind of housing.
That’s also the number of people the group estimates are chronically homeless in King County.
This year’s spending decision is a good start, said Chad Mackay, CEO of Fire & Vine Hospitality and co-chair of the Third Door Coalition, even if there’s a long way to go.
“The fact that they’re moving forward with that amount of units in a pretty short amount of time is fantastic,” Mackay said.
The goal was to bring as many new units online as possible, as quickly as possible, Alvarado said. By speeding up permitting, urging lower costs from housing providers and using technology that employs prefabricated panels, 496 of the 599 units are estimated to be completed by the end of 2021.
Last year, the city spent a record $110 million on the creation and preservation of affordable housing from a mix of funds including the Seattle Housing Levy and the sale of the Mercer Mega Block. Most of the money, $82 million, was put toward low-income housing for families, individuals and seniors.
This year, the Office of Housing will spend roughly half that on these low-income groups while upping investment in permanent supportive housing.
The aim is to better serve Black, Indigenous and other people of color disproportionately impacted by homelessness, said Durkan, Alvarado and Chief Seattle Club Executive Director Colleen Echohawk.
According to the 2020 King County point-in-time homeless count, people who are American Indian or Alaska Native represent 32% of the chronically homeless population, but make up just 1% of the overall county population.
One of the buildings financed by the city will be 125 of new permanent supportive housing units known as Sacred Medicine House, operated by the Chief Seattle Club.
“This is what equity looks like, but we know that Native people have the highest rates of homelessness in our city,” Echohawk said at the press conference. “We have to do something to target that population, to target our relatives experiencing homelessness.”