There’s no reason to be coy here: No one expected this year’s biennial city budget to be remotely transformative when it comes to homelessness.
When the mayor secretly launched a plan to undermine and repeal the Employee Head Tax (EHT) it was well understood that there was no Plan B. The backroom maneuver, revealed in text messages, demoralized a movement and defunded the core strategy to reduce homelessness in one fell swoop.
From this foundation, one does not expect great things to follow.
Additionally, estimates of the city budget gap started at $28 million at least, which guaranteed that any gains for homeless services would occur in a scarcity environment that pits one cause against another.
Finally, the mood at Fifth and James, with rare exception, is timid at best. Beginning with last summer’s EHT turnabout and running scared from the threat of electoral targeting in November 2019, visionary action is in short supply.
Unsurprisingly, when this mayor’s budget was revealed last week, the funding for homelessness is nothing short of status quo. Something called “enhanced shelters” take the lion’s SHARE, while truly progressive prevention measures or interventions are scant. And absent a dedicated city funding source for affordable housing, any real progress in that area will have to come from the state and county for now.
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The bright spots that do exist are little more than a faint twinkle. You may recall that last year’s budget — in the face of an escalating unsheltered count and unprecedented numbers of homeless deaths — defunded hygiene services and the Women’s Referral Center, as well as low-cost self-managed shelter hosted by SHARE.
This indefensible decision was turned around by determined advocacy. An $11 million land sale allowed the city to at least not lose ground. The 2019/2020 budget at least continues last year’s one-time funding. So there’s that.
And yet, with SHARE beds again on the chopping block, it’s déjà vu all over again. Hundreds of our least expensive overnight beds — hosted by congregations and self-managed by residents — will likely be lost. Another 53 beds, these with a lock on the door and a room of one’s own, will be lost in the closure of the Licton Springs tiny houses village. Instead, the mayor’s budget focuses on the kind of shelter she’s always favored — the kind that is an easy sell to people with money who sit on Nextdoor and complain.
Regardless of one’s opinions on SHARE — and legitimate critiques have gone unanswered there for years — at the end of the day, we are drawn back to the math. An unfulfilled commitment to 500 new shelter beds minus 270 beds lost equals a mere 230 beds gained, at best.
This mayor has retreated from funding affordable housing to settle for merely increasing emergency shelter. With this budget, the commitment to even that is in serious question.
Meanwhile, police will get $65 million in back pay increases, because they have a union that actually fights for them.
Perhaps the best news this budget session occurred just last week, when Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda’s Resolution 31837 passed. A coalition of community groups including Puget Sound Sage, the Housing Development Consortium, Futurewise and Forterra NW, have successfully pushed forward action to prioritize surplus city lands for affordable housing.
Last summer, House Bill 2382 passed in Olympia, which allows local governments to transfer surplus property to build or fund affordable housing.
Apparently, Mayor Durkan missed the memo, because she’s been feverishly working to sell off the three-acre South Lake Union Mercer Mega Block for development of luxury high-rises or Class A office towers.
As Cary Moon and Michael Eliason wrote in Crosscut in July, mayors in cities like Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna have mitigated their housing crises through a movement to “Keep public lands in public hands” and fund affordable housing.
Seattle, in this time of hyper-development and polarization of wealth, needs to follow suit.
During this budget session and over the coming year, all eyes need to be on the mayor and council to ensure that public property is used to reduce homelessness, and that, at the very least, there is no net loss in emergency shelter beds. Anything less than this only compounds the betrayal.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
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