King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced some key details about a long-planned regional homelessness authority Wednesday morning, including how much funding the new entity will received from the city and the county, how it will be governed, and which functions of the city’s Human Services Department will be shifting to the new authority and which ones will be staying at the city. The regional authority will effectively consolidate most of the county and city’s homelessness investments into a single agency, and replace existing agencies including All Home and the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investments division, which is part of the Human Services Department.
“We’re not saying this is the solution or a panacea,” Durkan said, “but we know what we’ve done before has not worked. What you see today is everybody joined in one cause, together.” Standing behind Durkan and Constantine were retiring Position 7 city council member Sally Bagshaw, representatives from several suburban cities, King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles, human service providers and several formerly homeless individuals.
The new authority will be funded by $73 million in city dollars and $55 million from the county (including a total of $42 million in federal grants to both). Structurally, the agency will be a public development authority governed by an 11-member board consisting of still-unidentified “experts” that will include three people with “lived experience” of homelessness. (The board will be overseen by a separate steering committee that includes the mayor and county executive, along with other local officials). The agency will be charged with issuing and administering all contracts for homelessness services.
For Seattle, the biggest change will be the eventual dissolution of the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment Division, which oversees the city’s existing response to homelessness, including shelters, transitional housing, outreach, and services associated with permanent supportive housing. Both the Navigation Team (which removes homeless encampments from public spaces) and the actual construction of permanent supportive housing will remain with the city’s Human Services Department. The new authority will issue contracts to human services providers directly, work that was previously performed by the separate city and county governments.
The new authority will not come with any additional funding for homelessness. Both Durkan and Constantine said this morning that a regional organization will create “efficiencies” that will allow the region to use its limited homelessness dollars more effectively, rather than passing a new funding source like the $275 million property tax levy former mayor Ed Murray proposed, then abandoned, in 2017, or the 0.1 percent sales tax increase Constantine and Murray proposed, then abandoned, later that same year. This morning, Constantine said that he was “very optimistic that this new structure will allow us to marshal all of our resources in the region to be more effective in addressing homelessness” even in the absence of more money to solve the problem.
Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, whose city is not yet a party to the agreement, added, “Hopefully the days of sitting in meetings and at the end of them, saying, ‘How many people did we house during the meeting?’ ha[ve] come to an end. Working together is what’s going to make this happen.”
In 2017, the city held a competitive bidding process for homelessness contracts for the first time in more than a decade, a change city officials touted at the time as a way to hold service providers accountable for moving people from homelessness to permanent housing. Asked whether the new authority would hold contractors to the same set of standards, director Jason Johnson said that the contract between the city and the regional authority “will say, ‘Here’s $70 million, and here’s our expectation with those $70 million. [We’re going to] make sure that the governing board is really clear about … what the expectation will be.”
The city’s homelessness division will be phased out over the next year, starting as early as December, when HSD and county employees (along with All Home, the county’s coordinating agency for homelessness) will move their operations to the county-owned Yesler Building in Pioneer Square, according to internal memos. Once the process of setting up the regional agency is complete, All Home will fold and all city employees “on loan” to the new agency will take permanent jobs at the new authority, find new jobs at the city, or face layoffs. The new regional authority, according to Johnson, will take over the annual Point In Time Count of people experiencing homelessness as well as running the county’s coordinated entry program‚basically the front door to the homelessness system.
In a 2018 survey, employees of the city’s homelessness division reported feeling unappreciated and ill-informed about management decisions. Today, Johnson said he would do his best to “offer as much information as possible to employees” who will be impacted by the changes announced today. The city’s three-part transition plan for existing homelessness division workers shows employees being hired by the regional authority, transferred into other city jobs, or “transitioned” out of the department by April of next year.
The legislation setting up the new regional authority still has to be approved by both the Seattle City Council and King County Council. The latter, of course, includes Republicans and representatives of cities that are not being included in the plan who do not support the idea of a new regional bureaucracy overseeing homelessness. This morning, King County Council member Reagan Dunn issued a statement opposing the plan, saying, “This new layer of government would be undemocratically structured, lack representation of suburban cities, and be yet another expense on taxpayers. The homelessness crisis won’t be solved by pushing Seattle’s failed policies to the surrounding region.”
Dunn’s colleague Kohl-Welles said she hadn’t heard widespread opposition on the council, but added “I don’t know, standing here, that we’ll have unanimity as a council. I think there likely will be amendments as the legislation goes through the deliberative process, [but] I have not heard any other council member come out and say, ‘I am opposed to this.’ It’s more, ‘I’d like to learn more about it. I have some concerns but I don’t know the details yet.'”