A stalled King County committee on homelessness looks to a post head-tax world.
Mayor Jenny Durkan had been in office only a few weeks when she and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced what appeared to be the broadest effort to address homelessness in years, and they promised to do it on an aggressive timeline.
“We have to have a fierce sense of urgency,” Durkan said at the launch of the regional initiative, called One Table.
But almost seven months later, the One Table initiative has been pushed to the sidelines. Its recommendations are still in draft form. The 81 participants — businesses, philanthropies, service providers, labor unions and public-sector leaders — haven’t received formal communication since April 27.
“I think everybody’s in the dark as to what’s next with One Table,” said Mark Putnam, executive director of Accelerator YMCA and former head of the county’s regional homeless organization, All Home.
During the life of One Table, the regional homelessness crisis has continued unabated. Since the beginning of the year, 53 people presumed to be homeless have died outside or by violence. Tent camps continue to dot the city, and shelter beds are routinely full.
As One Table stalled, Seattle’s approximately $47 million-a-year business head tax to fund homeless services and housing collapsed in unprecedented fashion, with the City Council repealing its own ordinance a month after unanimously passing it. The fierce debate over the head tax has left the city reeling.
With the death of the head tax, One Table is the only remaining regional, large-scale initiative to address homelessness in the county.
Many involved with the group — including co-chairs Constantine, Durkan and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus — say they are ready to restart the initiative now that the head tax “distraction” is over.
The Seattle Times reached out to more than a third of the committee members this week, and heard back from 19, all but a few of whom were willing to restart One Table.
Many members — particularly elected leaders from the county and regional cities — said they are not considering new taxes to address homelessness, and they plan to look to currently available resources. However, many homeless service providers and housing experts say a surge in funding is necessary to truly attack the crisis.
In an interview Friday, Constantine said One Table is “very close” to producing final recommendations and will likely reconvene sometime this summer.
He said he understands the urgency of the crisis, which is why he’s focused on looking to available funding to address the problem.
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“However we feel about what just happened at the city, we need to put that conversation in a box, and instead turn some of our attention to dealing with the challenge at hand,” Constantine said.
But while officials may be able to get participants back to the table, the path toward One Table’s ambitious goals are still unclear.
Setting the table
One Table was designed to address the root causes of homelessness, including mental-health issues and substance abuse, the criminal justice system and limited access to good-paying jobs. Rather than focus on those who have already lost their housing, One Table was looking to prevent it.
Solutions, however, are made more elusive because King County’s homeless response is so “fragmented,” to quote both Durkan and Constantine, among Seattle, King County, neighboring cities, philanthropies and service providers.
After the first few One Table meetings, Durkan and Constantine agreed to develop a plan by later this year for a new, integrated governance structure, making it the only somewhat tangible outcome of One Table thus far. They have yet to determine what the structure will look like.
One Table had planned to finalize recommendations for action on May 3, but that meeting was canceled as the Seattle City Council sped toward a vote on adoption of the head tax.
“The head tax conversation took all the oxygen out of the room,” said Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen, a member of One Table.
She said Seattle’s approach — imposing a tax before finalizing a spending plan — caused “people to lose a little bit of faith in government.” It also left One Table unsure which gaps in the system it was trying to fill.
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce refused to participate in the city council task force that produced the head tax, and vigorously fought it. In contrast, business members of One Table said they’re willing, even eager, to get back to the table. Amazon, which opposed the head tax and is a member of One Table, declined to comment. Zillow and Vulcan, Paul Allen’s investment company, both expressed support.
Jill Mackie, vice president of public affairs for the shipbuilder Vigor, said the company liked the nuanced “strategies specific to populations at risk of homelessness,” including people with mental illness and chemical dependency.
“We appreciate the One Table approach of identifying the drivers of the problem and some strategies to deal with the drivers instead of deciding to tax job creation with no effective plan to improve outcomes,” said Mackie.
Steve Hooper, CEO of Kigo Kitchen restaurants, said he liked some of what he thought were bold, if not fully detailed, ideas from One Table that “would move the needle,” including stronger preventions to keep people with criminal records from falling into homelessness.
“People are genuinely motivated to make a difference, as long as the politicians have the political will to actually implement them,” he said.
The big questions
Before One Table stalled, it produced a draft plan for six “priority actions” — including funding 5,000 more affordable housing units countywide over the next three years; providing more on-demand behavioral health treatment and services for youth aging out of foster care; and doubling the number of people in King County’s job training programs.
Not included in the recommendations were strategies to help those who are already homeless. There is no mention of the estimated 400 unsanctioned tent camps throughout Seattle, or the thousands of people living in vehicles.
Broadly speaking, many One Table members agreed with the recommendations, but some members thought the 5,000 new affordable housing units lowballed the need. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company recently estimated the county now needs up to 14,000 more affordable units for people experiencing homelessness.
But One Table’s recommendations included no price tag, and some members said they weren’t innovative or new.
“It felt unsatisfying because you couldn’t answer those big questions of what will this get you, when do we think this will be accomplished by, how much are we talking about and from whom?” said a One Table member who asked to not be named.
Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda saw One Table’s recommendation more as messaging than reevaluating policies or priorities.
“For me, the conversation at the One Table meeting stalled precisely because there was no funding mechanism,” said Mosqueda, one of two on the council to vote against the head tax repeal.
Despite an emphasis on a regional approach, “there was never a mention of true, progressive funding sources or what policy changes needed to be enacted to act with expediency and build housing and shelters,” she said.
Whatever solutions they adopt, Bellevue Mayor John Chelminiak hopes officials involved with One Table won’t try to institute blanket policies across the county, but instead set goals each municipality can reach in its own way.
“The electeds were looking to set bold goals, but not radical policies, if you will,” Chelminiak said.
New taxes? Or not?
The general assumption among many members was that One Table was a precursor to a new King County sales-tax proposal dedicated to housing and homeless services, said Putnam, the former head of All Home.
“Everybody thought, ‘We’ll come up with strategies, this will be the spending plan and they’ll roll out an initiative,’” Putnam said.
Instead, Constantine said he is looking at existing resources. Among them is a proposal he plans to bring to the Metropolitan King County Council to bond against future hotel-motel tax revenues to generate $100 million. That could be used to build affordable housing units.
He hopes the council would tap a county rainy-day fund to pay for behavioral health programs, including on-site treatment in homeless encampments, and expand access to opioid addiction treatment.
King County Councilmember Rod Demboski, a Democrat, is also leery of proposing a new tax. “I think there’s existing resources that we could bring to the table. I think we owe it to the public to have the plan first, and put performance metrics on it.”
The hesitance to raise taxes reflects the divide between the factions of One Table, and the challenge of finding a regional solution everyone can agree on.
Mosqueda, and many homeless-service providers, say they are willing to come back to One Table because the crisis is so urgent, but they insist new and significant revenue sources must be part of the conversation.
“This is truly a resource and political-will question,” said One Table member Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “Nothing else is in question.”
When One Table convenes again — and Constantine says it is when, not if — he hopes it will be relatively brief and tightly focused on quantifying the scope of the homeless problem and the gaps.
No date for the next One Table meeting has been set.
The vigil for the 53rd homeless person who died on King County’s streets or by violence this year is scheduled for Wednesday, in the 31st month since Seattle and King County declared a state of emergency on homelessness.