One of the first things King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) was tasked with, according to the interlocal agreement (ILA) that created it, was coming up with a five-year plan. The ILA directs the agency to create the plan not more than six months after the first meeting of its implementation board, which is in turn tasked with recommending it to KCRHA’s governing committee after incorporating public comment and conducting their own review of the plan. That board’s first meeting was in January 2022.
In December 2022, the authority unveiled the first draft of the plan. After initial discussions and a month to review the 133-page document, the implementation board dug into it at the Jan. 25, 2023, meeting.
Suffice to say, a few members were less than thrilled with the work product. Mayoral appointee Benjamin Maritz, for example, called out the plan’s emphasis on creating more permanent housing, saying, “Our mandate here is to be the crisis management. We’ve got to be the emergency room; we are not the housing provider.”
He also described the plan as “unreadable” and too opaque for members of the public to understand. However, his main concern was with the price and pace of creating permanent housing.
“I fundamentally don’t disagree with any of the goals of this plan,” he said. “My concern is that even if we were going to go and get $7 billion and then start to build the 20,000-odd housing units that are needed, this would take many, many years and this would not help the people that are unhoused today.”
Citing recent point-in-time count numbers showing that the region currently has thousands of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, he pleaded for the plan to focus on getting those people inside with as much urgency as possible.
“We need to think about how many people can we move inside tomorrow, how many on Monday, how many next month, how many the month after that, and focus all of our efforts on that,” he said.
At the end of his comments, Maritz thanked KCRHA staff for their work on the plan but said, “At this point, I think this plan has a long way to go before I would be comfortable signing my name to it.”
This is, to some extent, shooting the messenger. The plan does not include line items or budget projections for permanent housing, though it frequently stresses the need for more of it. The price tag — of anywhere from Maritz’ $7 billion to King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn’s $11.8 billion, which he decried in one of his frequent announcements via the council’s press office — appears to come from a section titled “The Need for a Shared Methodology.”
In it, the plan’s authors suggest that the region needs “permanent housing for 48,000 households and temporary housing for as many as 36,000 households (fewer as permanent housing comes online), which could potentially require $8.4 billion in new one-time capital costs over five years and between $1.7 billion and $3.4 billion in additional annual operating costs, depending on the rate at which additional permanent housing is created.”
As Maritz pointed out, KCRHA does not have the authority to build permanent housing and is specifically tasked with managing shelter, emergency housing and transitional housing. The total cost for new emergency housing, medical respite housing, housing for people in recovery, safe parking lots, RV parking lots and micro-modular housing — all of which falls under the umbrella of temporary housing — was $2,969,310,923.
While Maritz was critical of the plan’s focus on permanent housing, he did not say what he would prefer to see. He did not respond to a message left with the main line at his company, Great Expectations, or to a Twitter direct message. However, fellow committee member John Chelminiak, a former Bellevue mayor, hinted at alternative solutions.
“The report itself is long on what the problem is and very short on what we’re going to do about it, especially in the quick term,” he said, echoing Maritz’ criticisms. To combat that, he suggested, “The most important thing is that emergency housing component. … [One] thing that I’m struck by in the report was also mentioned by a large number of people in their testimony today. In the report it’s called micro-modular housing. That can be tiny home villages, but there are other types of modular units that can be available.”
While he said that he was “not a huge fan of having people live in small homes like that,” Chelminiak said he would happily help build them and expressed an overall positive sentiment about their usefulness in meeting the immediate needs of unhoused individuals.
The testimony he was referring to was from Barb Oliver, the director of operations for Sound Foundations NW’s “Hope Factory,” a facility where, she said, “they build about 90 percent of the tiny homes.”
She touted the project as being a cost-effective solution to the homelessness crisis.
“We are now in year two of a four-year plan to get every single homeless person in King County a roof over their head, a lock on their door and food in their stomach,” Oliver said. “At the cost of less than two hotels: $47,000,454.”
After mentioning that Martiz, from the implementation board, had volunteered to help build tiny homes with the group, Oliver expressed frustration at what she perceived as a lack of interest on KCRHA’s part in the project.
Her frustrations seem to stem from the fact that the five-year plan includes no new funding for micro-modular housing and argues that the Washington State Department of Commerce (DOC) modeling upon which the plan is based “found that there was not a need for significant expansion of micro-modulars.”
However, the plan also praises them as a superior option to traditional congregate shelter.
“Non-congregate shelters, including micro-modular shelters and hotel/motel shelters offer privacy and stability, in a space that is separate from other people and safe for belongings,” reads a section titled “Non-Congregate Shelter - ‘Emergency Housing.’”
The plan proposes to add at least 750 emergency housing units per year until the total is 7,137, which, according to the DOC data, is the gap between existing emergency housing and the region’s total need for it. The fact that the plan delineates between micro-modular housing and emergency shelter, while proposing to build none of the former and a significant amount of the latter, could be interpreted as a preference for more traditional indoor shelter options.
KCRHA CEO Marc Dones did not comment on this perceived deprioritization of tiny home villages, instead zeroing in on the criticisms around cost. They emphasized that none of the cost for permanent housing was anticipated to be part of KCRHA’s budget at any point, before touching on what it would cost just to provide enough temporary housing.
“I feel obligated to note that every report that has been cited today, several of which I wrote, also noted that the cost of solving homelessness in this community, even for temporary things, would be in the billions. That’s an old number. It is alarming to me that we would continue to react to old information as if it was new,” they said.
Though KCRHA urged Real Change to speak with Dones directly about the plan, they were not available for further comment by press time. After hearing Maritz and Chelminiak’s comments, several board members, including Seattle University law professor Sara Rankin and the Raikes Foundation’s Paula Carvalho, chimed in to express support for the plan.
“I know that we continuously come back to what is going to be the price tag,” Caravalho said, before touching on Maritz’ emergency room analogy. “We need to get people housed now, but if we don’t think more upstream about turning off that inflow, we will always be the emergency room. So, yes, $7 billion is a large price tag. [But] I don’t think anyone agrees that reshuffling the chairs of the budget that we have is going to work.”
The plan remained open to public comment until Feb. 8; it is going to the agency’s governing committee on Feb. 16 for a final vote on adoption.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Feb. 8-14, 2023 issue.