Real Change asked all candidates in major King County races to talk with us about how they would address the housing crisis and the needs of people experiencing homelessness. In this spoken interview, Dow Constantine shared what he would do if he were reelected to be the King County Executive.
One of our vendors was pretty concerned about the disconnect between elected officials and folks experience experiencing homelessness. What personal experience qualifies you to create policies for the unhoused community?
Well, of course, I should start by saying that I have not personally experienced homelessness. And that is true, of course, in most elected officials. But I have worked to ensure that people with lived experience have real power and leadership roles in our work. So when I led the fight to create the regional homelessness authority, we listened to the lived experience coalition and heeded their admonition to bring people with lived experience in not just an advisory role, but with full power, voice, vote at the table and created a governing committee that fully includes those with lived experience. And that is consistent with what we are attempting to do across all of our work: to democratize and enrich our work with the experiences of the very people we’re trying to help.
But there’s another aspect of this, which is that in order for us to accomplish what we need to accomplish, whether it’s in this arena or others, we have to also bring the ability and experience of implementing important, hard changes at scale to make a real difference. And I have been able to do that; for example, building region-wide coalitions to create our health through housing initiative, where we’ve been able to cite, with the cooperation of city leaders, new hotels, facilities in Seattle, and Renton and Redmond and Auburn and Federal Way, or the work that we had to do to create a three-county Regional Transit System, which required not only believing in transit, but also having the relationships, the political capital, the ability to craft a region wide coalition to actually get the thing done.
So all of these are critical to success. And I’m really pleased with the work that we’ve been able to do to change the way — or begin the process of changing the way in which government does business to fully include the voices of those with lived experience.
The advocacy arm of Real Change is firmly against charter amendment 29, because it would continue the cruel practice of sweeping encampments and displacing our unhoused neighbors. Do you support charter 29 and thus, sweeps Why or why not?
I don’t support sweeps. I think sweeps have been cruel and unproductive. At the same time. We need to be about the business of finding building and supporting places where people can live and can flourish. And we need to stop spending time as a community debating where people cannot be.
Instead, we need to be spending our effort creating the places where people can be. And that means, you know, taking on the housing crisis head on, which requires public investment, as well as changes to regulation to allow more types of housing in more neighborhoods. But it also involves directly addressing the people who are struggling in homelessness today, including those who’ve been chronically homeless, to create the spaces where they can come in from chronic homelessness, where they can receive the services they need to stay housed, where they can begin to reclaim more agency and control of their lives. And I think that that is very much evidenced in the work that we’re doing in health through housing, in my jobs program, and much more.
The idea that homelessness is somehow an inevitable condition of our society has to be rejected vigorously, and communities need to pull together to say that we will not allow ourselves to create the conditions where thousands of our brothers and sisters do not have appropriate housing.
Would you propose any new policies to addressing homelessness? What would you try that we haven’t tried before as the crisis rapidly grows in large cities like Seattle?
Well, no, the thing we need to address homelessness is housing. And I know that’s not an innovative or new idea. But that is the reality. The solution to homelessness is homes, is housing. It is the single most important thing when you need to address homelessness. And housing works, and housing first works. It is a fact that we are dealing with some global conditions that we cannot easily fix locally, like income inequality and entrenched systemic racism and, even regionally, the overheated housing market born of an unprecedentedly robust economy. But we certainly can take on the issue of providing housing for people who are earning the least. And that requires government subsidy; the market is not suddenly and magically going to start providing housing, creating housing for people earning 0 to 30% AMI. But it is well within our capacity to do that, just as it is within our capacity to work in the public, nonprofit and private sectors to create more housing for people in the 30 to 80 and 80 to 120(%) AMI ranges.
One new idea, that’s really an old idea, but one that we’re implementing is creating jobs for those who have been homeless and unemployed, and at King County, and I’m not sure if you heard about this, but we’re creating 300 to 400 jobs for people who have been homeless, accompanied by housing vouchers that we’re paying for with the federal funds we’ve received. Jobs that pay $20 to $25 per hour; jobs that come with an Orca pass; jobs that, if they’re with a county agency and are more than half time, would also come with benefits. And those are directed toward helping people who are homeless and are ready to work and begin moving back toward self-sufficiency and being able to pay their rent and move on with their lives, offer them the opportunity to do that. I’m sorry, I don’t have the contact information for that program right here. But I will send that to you afterwards. Because it might be a handy thing to include. If folks are looking for a solid job that pays $20 to $25 an hour, it is a really good opportunity. We’re just starting that program now.
So you know, in sort of in sum, this is not necessarily about trying new things. Most things have been tried. I think that our innovation — with the purchase of $315 million within hotel and other rooms — is a new thing of sorts, but something that was made possible by the downturn in the tourist economy. And you know, we’re pouncing on that opportunity. And that will add ultimately, nearly 2,000 units to the housing stock for those who have the least, but it is still doing better at righting the ship in the housing supply. And making sure those who have the least and may be the least able to claw their way out of poverty are provided solid ground under foot so they can begin living the life they want to live.
One of our vendors can’t pay their rent. They have been living in the city since 1962. But rising rent has made it so they can no longer afford their current apartment and Capitol Hill. What would you do to keep Seattle affordable?
Well, again, I don’t mean to sound like a broken record but build more housing. I have lived in the city since 1961. And I will tell you that conditions in my neighborhood have changed radically in that time. Many if not most of my classmates have had to move farther away, which is a story for neighborhoods all over a region where people have gotten priced out over time with the influx of new wealth and new jobs. But specifically, you know, we need about 5,000 new units of housing affordable to people at or below 30% AMI. We have put about $414 million into affordable housing from King County over the course of the last five years — $143 and a half million last year. But there is much, much more to do. And you know, we are dedicating funds from various sources to investing in that tranche, because we believe that only government ultimately is going to be able to stimulate the provision of housing for those who make the least.
And we believe in economic diversity in our communities. We don’t believe that is healthy for communities to be run dry of all the talent and social capital of people who may have not have been able to keep up with the changes happening in the economy, to which we are all to one extent or another victims. And we’re really interested in making sure that, in addition to these direct cash investments, all of our local governments, which there are 40 in King County, if you include the 39 cities and unincorporated King County, make room for new and more affordable housing styles, particularly adjacent to the high-capacity transit we’re building, so townhomes and duplexes for ADUs and DADUs. For apartments and all manner of housing, we have to have more housing construction, we have to make sure that people are able to live close to where the opportunity is and close to transport.
And then, you know, an answer that could be given to every question here and most other questions I’m posed: we have to make the legislature fix the state’s tax system. It is just unequivocally the worst in the country. And we have the wealth in this community to be able to provide for everyone, to provide the infrastructure, to provide the opportunity for every person to be able to fulfill their potential, and our inability to do it goes directly to the fact that the tax structure is utterly misaligned with the way the economy functions, and I’ve spent a lot of my time in office working to fix that. When I was in the legislature, I worked on it directly. Now. we advocate every year for the state to fix the tax system. Although incremental improvement has happened in the last couple of years, what we really need is a radical rethinking of the way taxes are collected in the state and by its local governments, so that people pay based on how much they have and how much they make. And if we did that, we would be able to accomplish everything that’s needed without anyone breaking a sweat.
Housing justice advocates fear that as this rental moratorium ends, we will experience a historic wave of homelessness. How will you keep the many folks in King County who are behind on rent in their homes?
So first, obviously, this is an enormous concern. The most humane thing we can do and also the most economically rational thing we can do is to keep people housed, not to wait until they are homeless and then attempt to somehow pull them out of that desperate situation. And, you know, this is about not just the immediate challenge of COVID, it is about these overarching systems that we struggle to fix like income inequality, which is a national and global phenomenon, or structural racism or the way in which the foster system works to send people out without supports from from the foster system into often homelessness, or the way in which the criminal legal system does the same thing or simply the mechanisms of the housing industry that have led to this crisis in affordable housing, that’s obvious.
We are working to push some $300 million of rental assistance out by the end of this year and, in fact, this year already, we’ve distributed $25 million, including $13 million that was reallocated from other counties that were unable or did not need to distribute those funds. The technological system that’s being set up by our Department of Community and Human Services is now ramping up to be able to serve more and more people every week, and, starting Monday (Aug. 30), they will be reporting weekly on the number of households served and the amount of money distributed. In addition, I think we should all celebrate that the best starts for kids, my childhood initiative, was renewed with 63% of the vote. In its first six years, we were able to prevent some 10,000 youth and families from becoming homeless through the family homelessness prevention initiative, funded by best starts. And so we have an opportunity to continue that.
This is also about you know, creating an economy in which people can participate and earn a living wage so that they can pay their rent. We need affordable housing, and we need people to be able to have access to good jobs. And we are coming out of this constellation of crises that we’ve been through to create an economy that is not only as robust it is as it has been, but also much more equitable, one in which every person has the opportunity to get gainful employment, and to thrive and to express their value to the community. We can’t expect short-term rental assistance, which is a response to the emergency we’ve been through, to solve these long-standing issues I’m talking about but it does buy us time.
Again, not to beat a dead horse, but there’s no way around the fact that we need more capacity, more homes — as well as, for those who are experiencing homelessness, more noncongregate, dignified, safe shelter. And I believe that in providing places that people view as a better alternative to the place that they’re staying, whether it’s their own tent or another place in a encampment, we are able to provide something that’s subjectively better, with on-site sanitation, a place that is secure, a place where you and your things are secure, a place that has services, and where you have some privacy, then we will be able to not only accord people the dignity they deserve, but also begin them on a path to reclaiming their lives and reclaiming the security of a home of their own.
Right now, in addition, to my health for housing initiative, where we’re more than halfway to buying the 1,600 units that we will provide to people — their own place with a lock on the door and onsite services — we’re providing some 500 enhanced shelter opportunities. So those are everything from additional spaces like those that at our Sixth Avenue South shelters run by the Salvation Army, where people have their own space and on site showers and baths and services, to — I’ve proposed a RV location, where people can come with sewer and water hookups, electricity, on site services, even a mechanic coming through to help people with their rigs. These are the kinds of things that need to happen if we’re going to give people the ability to exercise agency.
Homelessness is one of the most talked about issues in the city and county elections. Why in a wealthy county like King County, home to two of the richest men in the world are people homeless?
Well, I mean, I think I already covered this, but I’ll do it again. It is the state tax system. This community has the affluence to be able to pay for everything that is needed. We can pay to pave the roads, we can pay to build the high-capacity transit, we can pay for the finest schools, we can pay for the finest libraries — we can afford the things we need. And one of the things we need is decent housing, affordable to everyone in the community. And what we need is a tax system in this state that simply has people pay based on what they have, not on what they have to buy, for example, not based on some kind of extremely arbitrary assessment of your real property, which for some people is a insignificant part of their total assets, and for some people is the only thing they have in this world. But based on how much you have and how much you make, and that is a system that does not have to be invented from scratch, because we have 49 other states and many other systems to look to for examples, and they are all better than the one we have here in Washington State.
But we also need to focus on the smaller things. One of the places where I’m expending a lot of political capital is getting homeless housing and shelter sited in all of our cities. Every time you try to site a place, there’s an opportunity for cynical people to try to create a huge public outcry against siting a facility — people are outraged and they don’t want homeless people on the streets, they do not want to see anybody struggling to survive out there, and they also, then, at the same breath, are able to say that they don’t want a shelter or hotel or purpose-built housing for those who have been homeless in their neighborhood. And that is just outrageous hypocrisy and we cannot allow it. Instead, we need as a community to accept that it is our responsibility to join together and to really create the solutions that will allow everyone to live in security and dignity.
And I think I would cite the COVID example. Now there’s a lot of disagreement and a lot of argument about (the) COVID response. But the fact is that this community did and has and continues to pull together to try to battle this pandemic, right? I mean, we have done better than almost anywhere in the country, because people have been willing to make minor sacrifices, to suffer minor inconveniences, in order to protect everyone, and we’ve saved thousands of lives by doing that — that is a example we have to follow in homelessness. We can, on the one hand, reject the notion of homelessness being normal, of it being an acceptable condition, and, on the other hand, not blame those who have become homeless but rather join together to help create the conditions for them to be able to get back on their feet, to have a home of their own, to earn a living, to live with security and dignity. We as a community have the ability to do that — I already addressed the fact that we have the resources to do that. We just need to do it.
And I think that we’re taking big steps in that direction at King County. I believe that, if you look at the facts, you will see that I and my administration are investing more money in a shorter time to greater effect than anyone has ever done to address homelessness and ultimately to end homelessness. And I am grateful to those who are helping; I have no patience for those who are trying to use this issue to divide people and use it for political gain. I think that we simply need to change the way we think about homelessness and the people who experience it, so that we can, instead of blaming and instead of judging, we can just focus on getting people housed and providing the solid ground under their feet they need in order to do what we have set out as our true north at King County: to to be able to be part of a welcoming community where every person has the opportunity to thrive. So that is you know, my rant for the day, sorry, but I’m spending a lot of time and getting a lot of grief for this. And I just cannot tolerate people trying to talk out of both sides of the mouth that they both find the idea of homelessness abhorrent and they’re not willing to do anything to help solve it.
Read more of the Oct. 13-19, 2021 issue.