The King County Council approved a new sales tax that aims to create or acquire housing for nearly half of the county’s chronically homeless population, although several smaller cities in the county have passed their own version of the tax, bypassing the county’s effort.
King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed the tax in his annual budget release in September. The aim is to pair it with new state legislation to allow local governments to purchase distressed properties, like motels and nursing homes. Many such businesses have been hit hard by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Passing the measure before Oct. 17 means the county will be able to collect funds beginning on Jan. 1, rather than waiting for another fiscal quarter to begin in April. The sooner the money starts flowing, the sooner the county can use it as bond to fund housing.
The tax is an example of collective action that will hopefully get thousands of people into safe, stable housing, said Councilmember Joe McDermott, the prime sponsor of the legislation, in a statement.
“This unprecedented investment will provide a stable and long-term funding stream to house upwards of 2,000 people living chronically homeless, as well as behavioral health care,” McDermott said. “People experiencing chronic homelessness are bearing the brunt of inequality in our region and need housing and support services to empower their path to health and stability.”
People are considered chronically homeless, according to U.S. Housing and Urban Development, if they have been without housing for more than a year and have an underlying disability. People who have experienced chronic homelessness can be difficult to house because of income limits and the need for supportive services. There are roughly 4,500 chronically homeless individuals in King County, the Homeless Management Information System reports.
The council voted 8 to 1 to pass the tax, with Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a Republican representing southeast King County, against.
In a statement after the vote, Dunn criticized the speed with which the council passed the new tax and said that the strategy of housing 2,000 chronically homeless people did not have buy-in from suburban cities nor did it have approval from the new regional homelessness authority.
“This lightning speed process and lack of a collaborative approach is a sore spot for cities,” Dunn said. “King County cities and towns continue to advocate for a seat at the table when decisions are being made that affect their residents, but a countywide sales tax would make it very easy for the County to circumvent cities’ priorities while forcing taxpayers to pay for these Seattle-centric approaches to solving homelessness.”
City councils have already begun speaking out, with several passing their own 0.1 percent sales tax to preempt the county, deciding instead to control their own funds rather than paying into the countywide strategy to alleviate chronic homelessness. Many are also part of the nascent King County Regional Homelessness Authority, an effort to mold a regional policy to combat homelessness that supplanted All Home, a coordinating body that lacked the power to implement changes.
The fact that cities would so quickly avoid a regional solution to house one of the more challenging populations of people experiencing homelessness is problematic, said Sara Rankin, a law professor at Seattle University and leader of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project. Rankin is also a member of the implementation board for the Regional Homelessness Authority.
“If these cities are showing us who they are in terms of a commitment to regional solutions, we need to believe them and ask ourselves what we’re going to do,” Rankin said.
The tax and plan to spend it are straightforward, common sense solutions that will allow the county to make substantive investments at a time when industry has been laid low by the coronavirus outbreak, Rankin said.
Homeless advocates from agencies throughout the county agreed. Several called into public comment at the start of the Tuesday meeting to express their support for the tax, like Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH), who called it “common sense” and “inspiring.”
“We don’t often get those two things in one package,” Eisinger said.
King County residents will start seeing the tax on Jan. 1, but the authority to purchase certain properties will require a new law at the state level. That legislation is championed by State Representative Cindy Ryu and State Senator Patty Kuderer.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Oct. 21-27, 2020 issue.