An ambitious plan to create 2,000 units of housing for chronically homeless people in King County using a new sales tax may be shrinking as suburban cities pull back from the proposal.  

Last month, King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a 0.1% sales tax to pay for the housing, hoping to bond against the tax next year and buy hotels to be converted into new units around the county. Advocates hailed the plan as something that could begin to transform the fight against homelessness in a county that’s home to the country’s third-largest homeless population. 

But there’s a loophole: The tax, which takes advantage of a new state law allowing local governments to levy sales taxes for funding affordable housing, also gives cities the option to use the money for their own affordable housing projects instead. 

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

On Monday night, Renton, Issaquah, Snoqualmie and Covington moved quickly to gain control of the tax. Kent voted Tuesday night to follow suit. Maple Valley and Federal Way are discussing similar legislation, and Tukwila’s City Council considered a similar plan but rejected it Monday night. 

As more cities vote to implement their own tax, King County loses bonding capacity it needs to create housing for some of the most vulnerable — and visible — people living on the county’s streets. The money the cities raise would go to other, more varied projects to create housing for their lower-income residents. 

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Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone said at Monday night’s council meeting that passing much of this money to the Renton Housing Authority had always been his plan. Cities like Renton, which rely on sales tax, are struggling with a severe budget gap post-pandemic. 

King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who represents Renton and Kent, said he wants cities in his district to join the county plan. But Upthegrove believes Renton and Kent share frustrations with the way the county rolled out its emergency homeless isolation and quarantine sites during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Both cities fought the county for putting up homeless people in hotels in their cities, claiming that doing so put the safety of their constituents at risk and drained local resources.

A tug-of-war over power granted to Seattle and suburban cities during the creation of the new Regional Homelessness Authority also hurt trust with suburban cities, Upthegrove said. 

“I think both of those events resulted in the breakdown of trust between some suburban cities and the county,” Upthegrove said.  

But Upthegrove isn’t panicking about whether the cities pull back. He thinks that by voting to issue their own sales tax, cities are trying to bring King County back to the negotiating table. 

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“If they do it at least they’ll have some affordable housing and our plan will have to be scaled down a bit,” Upthegrove said. “Or we work with them, bring them to the table and find proposals that work in their city.” 

Alex Fryer, spokesperson for Constantine’s office, said his office “remain[s] very positive about the measure and its impact for the region.” 

Homeless advocates, however, are concerned. 

“Homelessness actually isn’t something that can be solved neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, city by city,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “We’re actually all interconnected. And that’s why King County as the regional governmental entity taking action does require 39 different cities to agree how to play ball together.” 

Renton City Councilmember Ed Prince was conspicuously quiet at Monday night’s vote.  

Prince, who sits on the regional homelessness authority’s governing board, is usually vocal about issues of housing and homelessness, and has been a champion of the effort to bring all of King County’s local governments together to try and lower the region’s homeless populations. 

After the mayor and the rest of the City Council spoke in support of the legislation, and Prince was asked if he wanted to comment, he spoke quickly: “I think we should vote.” 

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He voted yes; the legislation passed unanimously. Prince did not  immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Reagan Dunn, who represents half of Renton as well as Maple Valley and Covington, said the county executive has not created an environment of trust with these suburban cities, and didn’t consult them, or him, before announcing the plan. 

“What’s happening now is probably the most significant financial government-financed option that we are likely to see relating to homelessness for the next several years, and that’s what worries me,” Dunn said. “Because it is not coordinated with this regional homelessness governance authority that we spent so much time to create and is just beginning to get off the ground.” 

Other cities are sticking with the county’s plan. Spokespeople for Redmond, Bellevue, Auburn and SeaTac said they have no plans to claim the tax money. 

“I just think that the county is in a better position to leverage those dollars,” said Redmond Mayor Angela Birney, who also sits on the regional homelessness authority’s governing board. “All of the cities that are looking at using their own funding within their cities are struggling with the same issues all of us are. They’re trying to find a path forward. I’ll support those cities; I’ll support the county.” 

King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue, said some cities simply want to “buy their seat at the table” and ensure no decisions are made at the county level without them.

Issaquah, for example, plans to use its tax money for a mixed-use development, but included a mechanism in the legislation to return the money to King County if other funding could be found.

“The tone of these discussions has been really positive, much more positive than the discussions [around the Renton hotel and the Kent isolation and quarantine sites],” Balducci said. “I think there are many steps to come.”