According to internal emails obtained by Real Change, a $1.9 million “safe lot” contract awarded to a local nonprofit to house people experiencing homelessness who live in RVs or larger vehicles was set to be open by now.
On June 6, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) awarded the contract to the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) to create a lot where unhoused individuals living in RVs and other large vehicles could park semi-permanently.
After the contract was announced, Shani Jones, KCRHA’s procurement coordinator, wrote to Ralph Neis, an area manager for LIHI, asking what the timeline for locating and opening the lot was.
“Our goal is to identify the site and get it up and running by Winter. It will take around 2-3 months depending on delays in some utility or permitting process,” Neis wrote on Jun. 16. Jones also asked about LIHI’s plans for finding a suitable location.
“We are currently working with our realtor and University Heights Center to identify a site. We currently have a few we’re looking at. Most of the sites we have in our list are in Seattle but we also would like to explore options outside Seattle,” Neis replied. University Heights Center handles much of the city’s vehicle residency outreach.
Halfway through the contract period, the safe lot is still just an idea, albeit one with funding. Meanwhile, according to data from the city of Seattle, there were 273 RVs used as residences as of June 2022.
The 2020 point-in-time count reported 2,073 people living in vehicles in King County. According to KCRHA’s new Regional Services Database, which tracks all homelessness services in the county, there are only 146 spaces in existing safe parking lots, most of which only service passenger vehicles. All of this underscores the urgency of opening a lot specific to RVs and large vehicles.
The siting process is why we’re still waiting on it, said Sharon Lee, LIHI’s executive director, in a Dec. 1 interview with Real Change.
“Well, the difficulty is finding a site that has utilities and that would be flat and large enough and also would not be overly expensive,” she said. While LIHI looked at a number of sites, many landlords rejected the idea outright because of bias. Those happened to be sites where the cost was already prohibitive, so, anti-homeless prejudice or not, it wouldn’t have worked out anyway, according to Lee.
KCRHA’s request for proposals did not include a deadline or timeline for the project, something that Anne Martens, the agency’s spokesperson, said was normal for a project that involved a site search. She noted that funding for the project is not released until the site is selected and work begins.
“The award was issued with an ‘ASAP’ timeline, recognizing that there is an urgent need for a Safe Lot facility, and recognizing that LIHI would need to find a site for this new facility and prepare operations. We understand that siting is challenging, and we also expect that LIHI is working with all reasonable speed,” Martens wrote.
The silver lining here is that LIHI has narrowed it down to one location and is working on securing a lease.
“We’re still in negotiations to try and pin down the site. So, unfortunately, I don’t have much news for you, but I will have news for you soon,” Lee said.
Once it’s all set, the funding won’t be bound to the contract’s timeline, which ends in June 2023, per Martens. Securing funding after the initial $1.9 million runs out is another story, but Lee remained optimistic. The city of Seattle’s budget, she noted, included about $5 million for maintaining and expanding safe lots.
“It will be difficult to close it and move it. So, we see it as a multi-year endeavor, obviously, since there are hundreds of RVs on the streets of Seattle,” Lee said.
Read more of the Dec. 7-13, 2022 issue.