Now that King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) has been up and running for 20 months, there are many challenges facing it, including adoption of a Five-Year Action Plan to dramatically reduce homelessness. The 133-page draft plan is out for public comment, and critics question the feasibility and viability of the plan.
Here are some of the concerns.
First, the Five-Year Action Plan has an overall price tag of nearly
$12 billion and adds 15,690 shelter beds at a cost of $3.3 billion with annual operating costs of $1 billion. There are no specifics on how this plan will be funded. There is not a roadmap on how KCRHA will accomplish this. The current KCRHA budget for emergency shelters is $90 million. We ask, how is it realistic or feasible to scale up that amount? For the purpose of comparison, Seattle’s entire budget for 2023-24 is $7.4 billion.
Second, the urgent and primary focus of getting 7,619 unsheltered homeless people (from the 2022 point-in-time (PIT) count) indoors is lost in the myriad other recommendations. The PIT documents 13,368 homeless individuals, of which the majority — 57 percent — are living unsheltered. There should be a robust plan to mobilize public, private and community resources, including outreach to faith-based partners, to get everyone safely indoors, especially during cold or inclement weather.
None of this is detailed in the plan. Other major cities are able to open sports arenas (Denver opens its coliseum), community centers, libraries, gyms, senior centers and church fellowship halls. It is unacceptable that, in the late January cold spell, the only two places opened for all of Seattle were City Hall and the Seattle Indian Center. Unlike other sections, the severe weather response part of the plan does not contain a recommended budget.
Third, low-cost and common sense solutions were not explored or identified in the plan to address unsheltered homelessness. For example, approximately 23 percent of existing shelter beds funded by KCRHA are vacant, according to 2021 data. Why would we not find ways to fill 954 empty shelter beds on a nightly basis? Shelter staffing and utility costs are already fixed. Many beds are staying vacant because some shelters do not do intake on weekends or after 4 p.m. on weekdays. Typically, KCRHA-funded outreach workers are not asked to work evenings and weekends to refer people. There should be shelter access for people at night, when they are the most vulnerable. There are many low-cost policies and practices that can be implemented to increase utilization of existing shelters and improve outcomes. These should be delineated in the plan.
It was a surprise to read that the plan includes $139 million to create 4,722 short- and long-term parking spaces for homeless people living in cars and RVs. KCRHA is not connecting the dots here. Hundreds of families and individuals who were living in their vehicles have moved into tiny houses and successfully transitioned to permanent housing. Why keep people living in their vehicles? The city of Seattle, King County and suburban cities do not wish to see massive parking lots for more than 5,000 people — including families with children — to stay living in their cars and RVs. In a recent survey of RV dwellers by the Scofflaw Mitigation Project, a tiny house was the number one shelter request.
Finally, the plan calls for five years of zero investments in tiny house villages — the most sought-after form of shelter from people living outdoors — yet calls for spending close to $2 billion on other forms of emergency housing and shelter. The plan has math errors and unexplained computations. Under the “Non-Congregate Shelter” section, it shows funding for adding 7,137 shelter beds with a capital cost of $286,472 per bed in 2023, $343,987 per bed in 2024, $74,917 per bed in 2025 and $138,091 per bed in 2026. These wildly different per-bed costs are not explained. Nowhere is there mention that a typical tiny house village of 50 tiny houses has a $15,000 per bed cost.
KCRHA prides itself on being data driven, yet ignores even its own data showing the effectiveness of tiny houses in providing non-congregate shelter. KCRHA’s own plan states: “‘existing micro-modular shelters,’ commonly referred to as ‘tiny homes’ ... have consistently higher utilization rates at 90% (in comparison to the broader system’s 77%), and preliminary data suggests that they create pathways to stabilization and higher rates of exit to permanent housing: nearly 50% thus far, compared to previous congregate shelter models, which produced exit rates to permanent housing of 14-19% in recent years.”
The desirability of tiny houses as shelter is also corroborated by the city’s own HOPE Team and Human Services Department. Data shows that only about 36.5 percent of people who receive shelter referrals actually show up to that shelter and stay overnight. According to a recent report from PubliCola: “In general, tiny house villages — private mini-shelters that are among the most desirable forms of shelter currently available in King County — had a much higher enrollment rate than congregate shelters. Three of the four highest-performing shelters on the HOPE Team’s list were tiny house villages.”
Tiny houses are far and away the fastest, least expensive, most private form of emergency shelter. Villagers have their own private, insulated, heated, dry spaces with locking doors. They have access to hot showers, flush toilets and a kitchen. People living unsheltered prefer tiny houses over conventional shelters because they can bring partners, possessions and pets. A tiny house village of 50 houses with a modern hygiene center, common kitchen, case manager offices, fencing and security office costs approximately $750,000 (including leasing land, utilities, common facilities). The data clearly shows the superior performance of tiny houses over other forms of congregate and non-congregate shelters. In addition to the Low Income Housing Institute, Nickelsville, Chief Seattle Club, Catholic Community Services and a number of churches sponsor villages.
KCRHA needs to focus its scarce resources on serving people who are unsheltered right now. The 2022 PIT survey identified 7,619 unsheltered people. Most observers agree that number is low, but it is a starting point to begin determining the scale of our response.
Focusing on the unsheltered homeless population should be KCRHA’s first priority for the next five years. Critical elements of that focus should be to rapidly expand tiny houses, hotel-based shelters and other types of shelters; implement a robust severe weather response so no one has to stay outdoors in dangerous conditions; and significantly reduce deaths of homeless people.
Sharon Lee is executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute.
Read more of the Feb. 15-21, 2023 issue.