The mayoral candidate endorsed an approach, most famously used in New York City, that virtually guarantees shelter on demand. That could require adding tens of millions of dollars to the emergency shelter system.

Share story

Seattle mayoral candidate Cary Moon has endorsed a significant and potentially hugely expensive change in the city’s approach to sheltering the homeless, backing what’s known as a “right to shelter.”

Asked at a mayoral debate Tuesday if the city should adopt “an ordinance that guarantees people a right to shelter,” Moon appeared unsure, then answered firmly yes. “We sort of have this system where we provide housing as it becomes available instead of housing as a right.”

Moon’s response surprised some homeless advocates because it endorses an approach, most famously used in New York City, that virtually guarantees shelter on demand. Taken to a logical end, a Seattle “right to shelter” could require adding tens of millions of dollars to the emergency shelter system at a time when Seattle and King County embrace strategies to divert more people from shelter and into stable housing.

As the city’s homelessness crisis has emerged as a top issue in the Seattle mayor’s race, both Moon, a planner and activist, and her opponent Jenny Durkan, the former U.S. Attorney in Seattle, talk of affordable housing as a “right,” but only Moon endorsed a right to shelter.

2017 Seattle mayoral race

QUIZ: Seattle mayoral matchmaker: Which candidate shares your views?

Moon stands by her endorsement, said her campaign consultant, Heather Weiner, and supports looking “at other cities for what works best.” Moon has not identified a specific tax source to pay for it, but supports a variety of new taxes, including a city capital gains tax and a tax on vacant properties.

Durkan has proposed 700 new shelter beds citywide, distributed equally among neighborhoods. But she rejected a “right to shelter” law.

The effect would be “diverting millions of dollars in scarce resources to warehousing people experiencing homelessness in sometimes degrading shelters rather than providing people the housing they need to permanently exit homelessness,” Durkan said in a statement. “It is inevitable that such an ordinance would cause lawsuits and ligation, which would also divert additional funding and resources.”

Here’s what a Seattle right to shelter law could potentially mean.

January’s annual Point In Time Count tallied more than 3,800 “unsheltered” people in Seattle, living in cars, tents and the streets.

There are 3,691 shelter beds countywide — nearly all of them in the city — at a cost of $20.6 million a year, according to a consultant’s report last year commissioned by Seattle and King County.

The emergency shelter beds for single adults were full 76 percent of the time over the past year, according to new data from AllHome King County, the homeless response coordinating agency.

To tally up the cost of a right to shelter, consider that Seattle, with the support of homeless advocates, is moving toward a more expensive type of shelter — open 24 hours a day, with on-site services intended to make the shelter stays lead more often to permanent housing.

One of the first new “enhanced” shelters recently opened on First Hill, and it costs more than $16,000 per bed, more than three times the average per-bed rate of the existing system.

If shelter-on-demand were extended to the 3,800 unsheltered Seattleites in the newer, more expensive type of shelter, the bill would come to more than $61 million a year — more than Seattle spends on all types of homeless housing and prevention strategies, including long-term supportive housing.

“A right to shelter would eat up the entirely of the homeless budget pretty quickly” unless a new revenue source was added, said Mark Putnam, director of AllHome, King County’s umbrella coordinating agency for homeless services.

Putnam often disputes the “Freeattle” critique that Seattle’s relatively extensive human-services system is a magnet for homeless people. But a shelter-on-demand model, Putnam fears, would in fact have “a pull or a draw for people in neighboring areas.”

Unless it were implemented more widely than Seattle, “it can have unintended consequences,” Putnam said.

In New York, a right to shelter was created by a 1979 lawsuit based on that state’s constitution. It has dramatically reduced the number of people living on the streets, said Thomas J. Main, a professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York and author of the book “Homelessness in New York City.”

In fact, the 3,900 people tallied in New York’s Point in Time is nearly equal to Seattle’s count, despite New York being more than 10 times larger than Seattle.

But Main notes a right to shelter has also created a 62,000-bed shelter system with an annual cost of $1.1 billion. That system has been cited for including squalid, crime-ridden shelters as well as luxury hotels converted to emergency shelter beds at exorbitant rates.

“Unless you have a good plan in place, the shelter system is going to expand and you won’t have as much control over the quality of shelter,” said Main.

Local homeless advocates have pushed vigorously for more shelter and for protections to homeless people sleeping in tents and cars, but they have not explicitly advocated for replicating New York’s right to shelter.

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the region clearly needs more emergency shelter, but not necessarily a law mandating it.

“If you listen to both mayoral candidates, they said basically the same thing,” Eisinger said. “If you truly believe that housing is a human right, how could you not believe shelter is a human right?”