For residents of permanent supportive housing, the combination of conditions-free housing with on-site support — including social services, nursing and medical care and behavioral health treatment — has a proven track record. According to a report from Third Door Coalition, permanent supportive housing prevents between 90-95% of the people it serves from returning to homelessness. “Permanent supportive housing is consistently proven to be the most humane and cost-effective solution to chronic homelessness,” says Third Door co-founder Sara Rankin, an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law. “If we can make a difference with chronic homelessness, we can generate momentum to solve homelessness overall.”
And if legislation proposed last week by Councilmember Andrew Lewis (District 7) is passed by the City Council early next year, the costs and time associated with building permanent supportive housing in Seattle could be significantly reduced.
Lewis’s bill aims to speed up the often lengthy “Seattle process” that can stall construction of supportive housing — which service organizations and advocates claim offers the most effective tool to curtail homelessness. Lewis’ legislation would exempt permanent supportive housing from the city’s design review process and bike storage requirements, allow supportive housing in Commercial 2 zones and give the Director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) authority to waive or modify development standards to speed up permitting and construction.
“This is a good first step, this bill I’m proposing,” Lewis said in an interview with Real Change. “Let’s see what we can do in terms of really slimming down as much red tape as possible to reduce the cost. ... The next stage after reducing the costs is we’re going to have to have the tough conversations about revenue on a regional and state basis about how we pay for this.”
Permanent supportive housing combines housing placements without time limits alongside wraparound services that include counseling, medical services, mental health support and drug and alcohol treatment.
According to the report issued in May by Third Door Coalition, Seattle and King County need 6,500 units of permanent supportive housing within five years to create a path toward solving the region’s shelter crisis. Third Door estimates this effort will require $1.6 billion in funding from city, state and local governments and businesses. Lewis claims his legislation will make meeting that goal easier.
Though Lewis says community input on projects is important, he notes that SDCI’s design review process significantly slows down construction timelines in an era when getting shelter built is urgent. Lewis said, “We want to have a process that has robust community involvement. ... But [design review] does increase the time for a building to be built, because you have to go back and forth with the design review board ... and time is money when you’re building a project. ... The more uncertainty there is in that process and the longer it takes, you’re just burning money.”
“Getting rid of design review [for supportive housing] would make a huge difference in the ability to get these built faster.”
Lewis worked closely with service providers such as Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) and Plymouth Housing — as well as with the city’s Office of Housing — to craft the legislation and address issues that would do the most to reduce time and cost. Third Door estimates that the proposed rule changes will reduce the per-unit cost of permanent supportive housing from $331,953 to $284,200, a savings of $47,753.
The city temporarily waived design review of such housing during the covid-19 pandemic to speed up approval, and Lewis’s bill would make that change permanent.
One potentially controversial provision is the elimination of a requirement for temporary and permanent bicycle storage in supportive housing complexes. Lewis says the bike storage requirement makes sense for market-rate housing developments, but notes that service providers such as DESC told him that fewer units are being built in order to meet this requirement, which most residents don’t utilize. “The choice is really between bike storage that people don’t use and more units of housing,” Lewis said.
Other changes in the bill include revising zoning regulations to permit the building of permanent supportive housing in Commercial 2 zones, where residential housing isn’t currently allowed, and giving the director of SDCI the authority to waive certain code requirements to speed up construction. Rankin says these changes are necessary to swiftly address the city’s housing crisis.
“The bottom line is that PSH is a proven, cost-effective and humane solution to chronic homelessness,” Rankin said in an email. “Our region should prioritize bringing PSH to scale, and to do so, we need to be creative and nimble. CM Lewis’s proposed bill is a crucial step toward mitigating unnecessary costs that would otherwise make PSH more expensive and time-consuming to build.”
In the Office of Housing’s latest Notice of Funding Availability round of grant announcements, it noted that in 2020, the city had approved more than $60 million for the construction of 599 new units of permanent supportive housing. By reducing the per-unit cost of such housing in future, Lewis says funding opportunities will increase. “We can make a case to the Biden administration and to the state and county that since we have these rules and laws in place, if you give us that money, we can turn around and make those building projects shovel-ready way faster than other jurisdictions.”
The legislation should have a City Council committee hearing in late December, and Lewis hopes for a vote on the measure by mid-January.
Andrew Engelson is a freelance journalist and editor based in Seattle.
Read more of the Dec. 23-29, 2020 issue.