It’s been over two years since the King County Executive and the Seattle Mayor declared a state of emergency around homelessness.
We have developed new policies, awarded contracts, and argued vociferously about approaches. Gratefully, we will now shift away from arguments toward a coordinated regional system to solve our homelessness crisis.
We have made critical investments in homelessness services, shelter and housing resulting in thousands of people moving indoors, but we have been disjointed in our approach, creating a patchwork of programs rather than a system-wide approach for those who need it most.
Regional coordination efforts have been increasing but not yet embraced as fundamental policy. We have services and shelters funded by the city, other shelter and services funded by and through King County, and even more services provided by a constellation of human services providers, faith institutions and the private sector.
We now know what we need to do. We have done our due diligence, reviewed best practices nationwide, and invited national experts including Barbara Poppe and Focus Strategies to study and provide recommendations on how to create a regional system that works.
Thanks to our Pathways Home roadmap, and with appreciation to the announcement made on December 1, 2017 by Mayor Jenny Durkan, County Executive Dow Constantine, and Mayor Nancy Backus of Auburn, we have the commitment to regionally stitch together the patchwork of housing options and services to make thousands of more housing units available for people experiencing homelessness this year.
As I have written multiple times before, Addressing the Immediate Crisis requires us in our region to unite around certain principles:
- Housing First. We must increase housing supply and bring people who are without housing inside.
- People focused. This year we began tracking and solving homelessness with departments and agencies focused on a person-centered response, tailoring the response to the individuals served. This approach of coordinating efforts from the Emergency Operations Center has already produced important strategic results.
- Invest in treatment. We know which direct treatment solutions work for managing behavioral and mental health issues and we need to increase regional funding into these services.
We have solutions to put into action today, and when implemented across our region we will solve this crisis.
For example, last week Seattle’s Human Services Department announced contract awards of $34 million of funding in competitively bid contracts for homelessness services. The strategic goal and evaluation requirements emphasized moving people into permanent housing solutions.
This is a change from the way we invested in human services over the past ten years. This change reflects our commitment to fund performance-based outcomes, ensuring individuals have the tools they need to step out of homelessness. Housing is the first step.
In addition to this year’s Human Services Department contract awards, Seattle and other local cities will team with King County to locate or build thousands of places across the region for people who are living outdoors or who have unstable housing. We need to put a stake in the ground around an achievable number. My colleague who heads King County’s DCHS says 5,500 is that number.
Increasing the options: To get to 5,500 more stable units we must look across the available spectrum of options. For example, we are already expanding our enhanced 24/7 shelters, from two to 16 enhanced shelters in Seattle. Now we can focus on other options such as expediting permits for detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs) like Rex Hohlbein’s The Block Project, and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in accordance with our current administrative rules, build modular housing on publicly owned and privately owned property, reconsider microhousing and dormitories, as well as offer tiny homes within managed encampments and more.
Working with the private sector: The Employee Hours Tax is one way to tax businesses. As alternatives, we can also invite them to One Table and agree on private investments such as those made in Santa Clara, California and Atlanta, Georgia.
Here are two ways successful projects these cities have undertaken:
- Silicon Valley employers, employer foundations, state and federal housing agencies, and private citizens have voluntarily sustained a shared goal to make Silicon Valley a more affordable place to live. By 2016, the region had invested over $130 million to create more than 25,000 housing opportunities for Silicon Valley’s workforce, families, seniors and special needs individuals, relying upon the private sector investments. We can do the same thing through our One Table effort.
- In Atlanta, they created a program called Open Doors in Atlanta, a successful program that has helped nonprofit service provider partners house over 4,000 individuals over the last three years in Metro Atlanta.
We have a growing Landlord Liaison project we can pattern after Open Doors Atlanta. Here’s how our own More Open Doors program (MOD) can work to get people inside:
- The MOD team –a nonprofit funded by regional partners– will identify families, veterans, seniors, single adults, those who have served their time in prison, and people with barriers to housing. These individuals will be screened, have case managers on call, and will be able to move into private rental units quickly.
- Property owners will be identified by the MOD team and encouraged to participate in the program.
- The MOD team will offer property owners a comprehensive package of incentives, including risk mitigation funds for damages, housing stability support, rent guarantee, and respond quickly to tenant issues.
- To this end the City and King County will launch a campaign to call on the real estate community to ramp up this with targeted goals for housing in Seattle and in King County in 2018. We will be asking the business community to join with the County Executive and Mayor in support of a campaign jointly sponsored by the Chamber, DSA, the WA Multifamily Housing Association, the Rental Housing Association of Washington.
More Open Doors (MOD) is an option that has worked not only in Atlanta but in many other major cities across our nation as well. Hackensack, New Jersey has been identified as one of the first cities that actually ended homelessness using this approach. Admittedly, vacancy rates in Seattle and King County remain extremely low, but vacancy rates in Atlanta and Hackensack are likewise low. Anecdotally, we know the vacancy rate is even lower for apartments with lower rents and there is very little turnover in subsidized affordable housing. It is likely that units will be committed to the MOD and we can ramp up over time as vacancies occur.
Next steps are clear:
First, reach a high-level agreement on objectives and target quantity of units for the program;
Second, obtain an operator for the More Open Doors Program (Note: this is underway);
Third, find physical space for the operator’s employees to get to work;
Fourth, seek agreement from landlords for units in each district;
Fifth, create schedule and approach for additional funding in 2018.
We have the tools we need to solve the region’s homelessness crisis and now we have the regional leadership from Mayor Durkan and King County Executive Durkan and Auburn Mayor Backus to make investments expeditiously. I am enthused with this new effort bringing together business, philanthropy, service providers, health care providers, advocates, first responders, and city and county governments.
We’ve got the commitment. We need now to set the schedule, set the goal and saddle up.