From Pilot Projects to Systemic Change: Seattle City Council Mulls Solutions to Homelessness in Biennial Budget

by Aaron Burkhalter

Councilmember Mike O’Brien took a stroll through a new solution to homelessness and the city’s lack of affordable housing.

It was a short walk — the length of a long trailer. At just a couple hundred square feet, the tiny cottage has enough room for a small table for two — maybe three — people, a downstairs queen-sized bed and an upstairs loft where children could sleep. It has a kitchen, indoor plumbing, and electricity, but it sits on a trailer hook up that is secured to the ground in the backyard of a home in Kent.

The city may subsidize the construction of 12 such units of housing — O’Brien calls them “cottages.” The cottages join many solutions to homelessness the Seattle City Council is considering this budget season as it finalizes the funding package for the 2019-20 biennial budget.

Councilmembers have proposed solutions that run from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of millions and illustrate the varied nature of homelessness and variety of solutions needed. At the core of these proposals, each city budget forces the council to ask a perennial question: Can homelessness be solved through incremental steps, or is a systemic shift in policy necessary to make a difference for the more than 12,000 King County residents experiencing homelessness?

As the Council finalizes the budget, they will discuss pilot programs to find new and effective innovations to help solve homelessness; consider continued support and expansion of emergency shelter programs; and once again debate taxing large businesses to provide a much bigger pool of money for affordable housing.

The Small Cottage Pilot

Nearly every council budget includes funding for pilot projects — smaller amounts of money to try out various programs to see if they are scalable to a larger program.

O’Brien’s proposal to build tiny cottages is no different. On Friday, Nov. 2, he invited media to visit a tiny cottage in a backyard in Kent that he would like to bring to churches in Seattle to provide housing for people experiencing homelessness. The cottages would come fully furnished by the manufacturer. The company that produces the cottages would deliver all the parts on the same trailer upon which the cottage will sit. Community members (or perhaps staff and volunteers from supportive churches and nonprofits) would build the home.

“People deserve to have beautiful things and have pride in ownership,” said Rachel Stamm, founder of Close to Home, the for-profit company that designed and is producing the tiny cottages.

The wood-paneled cottage is small, but cozy. It differs from other tiny houses in that it’s a bit longer but also sits on wheels. That poses a challenge for this form of housing: Seattle code does not currently permit portable housing or homes on wheels in residential zones.

Close to Home created the cottage initially to house people after a natural disaster such as a hurricane. Stamm has built just the one unit in Kent but hopes to start producing more for disaster relief and possibly for Seattle as a solution to homelessness.

O’Brien proposed funding a pilot at $300,000 to subsidize the construction of 12 tiny cottages on church property. The city would pay $25,000 for each unit, about half of what a single unit costs. Under freedom of religion, churches have a constitutional right to serve homeless people and cannot be restricted, allowing them to host the housing that would not be allowed in residential zones.

Twelve units of housing is a small number compared to the more than 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County. But O’Brien sees it as one option of many that, cumulatively, could make a difference.

“This is something a family could comfortably live in,” he said. “I think what we need is a bunch of different tools.”

Maintaining and Expanding Emergency Shelter

When Durkan unveiled her budget proposal earlier this year, it echoed former Mayor Ed Murray’s in one crucial way: It defunded SHARE and WHEEL’s indoor shelter programs.

SHARE, which stands for Seattle Housing and Resource Effort, and WHEEL, which stands for Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League, operate many indoor shelters in churches across the city. Residents self-manage the sites and churches provide the space, making them an affordable service to house many people. Cutting the program would pull the rug out on a large shelter program that serves more than 200 people each night.

Councilmembers plan maintain the SHARE funding and even expand other emergency shelter options.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant has proposed funding the SHARE shelters at $378,000 in 2019 and $756,000 in 2020. The mayor’s budget already included enough for SHARE and WHEEL to operate the shelter program for half of 2019, so Sawant’s proposal would restore half the funding needed for the program in 2019 and the full funding needed in 2020.

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda has proposed an additional $4 million in 2019 and $2 million in 2020 for another emergency shelter program, this one creating a shelter system within the confines of a larger canopy that provides privacy, amenities and shelter to its residents.

Mosqueda proposed modeling the program after A Bridge Home in Los Angeles, which created a large canopy that would house homeless people and provide restrooms, showers, locker, laundry, and single beds.

Tacoma has a similar program, placing a tent city within a canopy.

Several councilmembers supported the proposal, noting that the canopy program offered a number of amenities. Sawant said there are unresolved questions and noted that tiny house villages offer privacy and security with a locked door.

The level of enthusiasm for emergency shelter of this kind was unthinkable for the Seattle City Council until just four years ago. Tent cities and other outdoor shelter options remained unpopular with the city council until 2014, when it first budgeted $200,000 for tent cities. Now the city funds a variety of programs, including tent cities and tiny home villages.

“Most of the colleagues up here really didn’t like the idea of tiny homes,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw at a recent budget hearing, referring to a time before most of the current city councilmembers assumed office. “Again, it’s not a solution or an end-all, but it’s part of the continuum and the emergency response.”

Big Funding for Big Solutions

Sawant said she supports solutions that would even bring a few people indoors or get them in a safer place. But she is also supporting a much larger pot of money, rekindling the debate from earlier this year around a tax on large corporations.

The Seattle City Council unanimously passed and then later rescinded in a 7-to-2 vote an employee hours tax on large businesses in Seattle that would have generated $48 millions for affordable housing and social services. Colloquially known as the “Amazon Tax,” it was originally conceived a year ago during the council budget deliberations. It did not get passed but instead was taken on by a city-convened Progressive Revenue Taskforce that sought to find alternatives to regressive taxation methods such as property tax and sales tax.

Sawant said the city needs to reconsider taxes on large businesses or find another way to put a significant amount of money into housing affordability. She pointed to a study that found that McKinsey & Company produced pro-bono for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce that showed that King County needs to double its annual spending on affordable housing to $410 million per year.

Sawant pushed forward three different proposals, including using the city’s bonding capacity to front-load the construction of housing and then pay off the bonds over the course of 20 years; creating a tax on large corporations in Seattle; and finding significant cuts in the city’s budget to reprioritize spending.

The city could spend $480 million through its bonding capacity, in one proposal, and pay off the bond over the course of 20 years, for $34 million in the first year and $40 million in subsequent years, according to Sawant’s staff.

Funding to pay off the bond or to pay directly for services could come from a new tax or through cuts to the city’s budget. Sawant proposed cuts in seven places — including funding spent cleaning up tent encampments, money for computers in police cars, and cutting the mayor’s and councilmembers’ salaries, among others — to save a cumulative $48 million per year for the bonding project.

Sawant said she is open to breaking any of these ideas down or reworking them. But she also said the study shows that the need for much more funding is undeniable.

“This is not a matter of opinion; these are the numbers,” she said. “Whether the councilmembers agree with me or not, they have to concede that the numbers don’t lie.”

A Multitude of Solutions

These proposals vary in size and strategy, but councilmembers do not necessarily see them as competing. For some, small and larger strategies are cumulative, all working together for a common goal — moving the needle to reverse the decade-long trend of increasing homelessness.

Sawant contends that a systemic change is necessary, however, to really make a difference.

“These ideas are not in contradiction to each other; they’re absolutely all necessary,” Sawant said, adding, “I think that for councilmembers to talk about these smaller solutions without tackling the question of housing affordability as a whole is like ignoring the elephant in the room.”

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw is overseeing the budget process, which should be completed by Thanksgiving. At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7, Bagshaw will present her balancing package, which has taken Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget proposal and made adjustments based on input from the nine-member city council.

After this package is approved, each councilmember may continue to propose additions for programs, but will have to propose direct cuts in other programs in order to keep the budget balanced.

Sawant is hosting a rally at 6 p.m. on Nov. 6 to support affordable housing in the city budget process.


Featured Photo Courtesy The City of Seattle

This article has been corrected. McKinsey & Company produced a report for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce pro bono. The Emerald regrets the error.

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