Project Homeless engagement editor
Published Jan. 29, 2022
It started during the pandemic. Grand promises, made with increasing frequency, to safely house and shelter homeless people amid the threat of the coronavirus and inflow of federal money.
Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis wanted to double tiny houses in one year. King County Executive Dow Constantine vowed to bring 500 people living outside into shelter before the end of 2021. The city of Seattle was going to build nearly 600 units of affordable housing and fill nearly 500 of them by the end of the year.
But now that 2021 is over, The Seattle Times wants to know: How did they do?
COVID-19 forced local governments to rethink how they address homelessness, realizing early on that traditional shelters with mats on the ground just inches apart would be a tinderbox for the airborne virus to spread. To help make substantial changes to the homelessness system, the region received a surge of federal dollars in pandemic stimulus aid.
And so far, both Seattle and King County have been able to make unprecedented and expansive capital investments to purchase hotels and apartment buildings in a short period of time.
But after obtaining the properties, they’ve struggled to move into them anywhere near the number of homeless people they said they would.
For example, King County purchased nine properties in 2021 — seven hotels and two apartment buildings — but so far only two hotels are providing shelter to chronically homeless people. One more is currently sheltering Afghan refugees and another is providing a safe place for people with COVID-19 to isolate and quarantine.
The other five properties remain vacant.
Seattle is in a similar position. In September, then-Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would help buy three brand-new apartment buildings with the goal of filling them by the end of the year. But on the last day of 2021, no one was there.
In summer 2020, the city’s Office of Housing announced a plan to build six new affordable housing buildings with the goal of having 496 units ready for tenants by the end of 2021. Now, in the new year, the department is saying that one building in Greenwood with 66 units — about 13% of what was promised — will be ready for tenants “early this year." Two more are under construction and three are still in the permitting stages.
“Construction projects across the entire building sector, these affordable housing developments included, have faced unprecedented challenges and delays over the past two years, due to impacts from the pandemic,” said Stephanie Velasco, spokesperson for Seattle’s Office of Housing.
Every county and city department cited similar pandemic-related problems — increased building costs, supply chain issues, not enough workers to staff the new hotels and apartment buildings.
“It continues to be true that the provider workforce is under immense strain while simultaneously doing some of our community’s most difficult work,” said Sherry Hamilton, spokesperson for King County’s Department of Community and Human Services.
Some delays are less cut and dry.
As part of Seattle’s “shelter surge,” the city set aside $2.3 million to provide rapid-rehousing dollars to help up to 231 people living in new shelters and hotels leased by the city move into permanent housing.
The city was unable to say how many rehousing dollars have been spent and is waiting for the hotel programs to close at the end of January to do a full accounting. An organization running one of the hotel programs, the Low Income Housing Institute, reported that only 33 people have taken advantage of the money.
“This is because the referrals from the HOPE team into the hotel of chronically homeless people swept from the parks and public places do not fit the profile of people who would succeed in (rapid rehousing),” said Josh Castle, spokesperson for LIHI.
Some projects, however, have met their goals on time.
In March, Seattle said it would lease two hotels for up to one year. It did and now the program is ending and most of the people in the program are transferring to permanent supportive housing.
King County used money from a 0.1% sales tax, called Health Through Housing, to exceed its planned eight property acquisitions in 2021. The tax, which passed in October 2020, was created to quickly purchase housing for people who are chronically homeless.
Currently, the county is using only two of its nine Health Through Housing properties to shelter chronically homeless people. Two more hotels are being used by the county to shelter Afghan refugees and people dealing with COVID-19.
Once those two hotels are through with their emergency-use purposes, they’ll house homeless people as the county works to open the other five properties, according to Sherry Hamilton, spokesperson for King County’s Department of Community and Human Services.
King County officials say that new and increasingly contagious variants of the coronavirus have slowed their ability to bring people inside. “For our provider network, the substantial staff challenges include not just hiring new staff for new shelter and housing, but keeping the existing staff healthy and able to report to work,” Hamilton said. The county has housed 69 people in other hotels, shelters and other places, in addition to the 180 in the two opened hotels.
Adding two new villages to Seattle’s tiny house landscape and expanding Interbay has increased the city’s tiny house count by 106 units and helped 123 people come inside. The nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute manages these three sites and seven other tiny house villages in Seattle. Nickelsville manages two more.
When businesses, libraries and other public spaces closed down at the beginning of the pandemic, it cut off many of the spaces that people living unsheltered rely on to meet their hygiene needs. Real Change, Seattle’s street newspaper and homeless advocacy organization, worked with architects to design affordable and easy-to-assemble street sinks. But more than a year since the City Council set aside the funds, the project has run into many unanticipated bureaucratic hurdles and red tape, according to Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director for Real Change.
Seattle provided half of the funding to purchase all three buildings. The Low Income Housing Institute purchased two of the buildings — Boylston and Broadway — in December, and it’s waiting on the third building to finish construction in March. People began moving into the Boylston apartments Jan. 12. In total, the three new buildings will add 166 affordable-housing units for people exiting homelessness.
In March, Seattle announced that it was leasing two hotels for one year to offer enhanced shelter to chronically homeless people. That program is ending in January, and the homeless service organizations that have been operating the hotel programs — the Low Income Housing Institute and Chief Seattle Club — are trying to help people move into recently built permanent supportive housing that they own and operate.
As part of a “shelter surge” plan then-Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in the fall of 2020, a new 24-hour shelter opened in Seattle First Presbyterian Church located on First Hill. The shelter originally opened as an emergency weather shelter during a large snowstorm in February 2021 and then opened as a fully operational shelter that May. WHEEL — the Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League — operates the program.
Another large piece of Seattle’s proposed “shelter surge” focused on providing temporary financial support to help people transition from city-leased hotel shelter into permanent housing. The city said it wanted to move as many as 231 people into permanent housing using $2.3 million. The city is currently unable to provide a full accounting of how much has been spent, saying it is waiting for both hotels to shut down. People working on the ground in the two hotels say that using the money has been challenging for a number of reasons. The Low Income Housing Institute, one of the organizations running the hotel shelter program, says that only 33 people have used the money so far.
In August 2020, Seattle said it would use all of the rental production and preservation funds from the voter-approved Seattle Housing Levy through 2021 to make an upfront $60 million investment in six new affordable-housing buildings to create 588 units for chronically homeless people. At the time of the announcement, the city estimated that 496 units could be completed by the end of 2021. But so far, only one building is nearing the end of construction to open in early 2022 with 66 units. Two additional buildings are being built, and the three remaining projects are working through the permitting stages to begin construction in 2022.
In January 2021, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced that he wanted to double the city’s tiny house stock within one year, building 480 tiny homes in just 12 months. At the time of the announcement, Lewis had $1 million in hand and was hoping to secure $14 million more in private and public funding. So far he’s been able to grow the funding base, but no additional tiny homes have been built. At the time of his announcement, three tiny house villages (which were completed this fall) were already in the works by the city of Seattle, so they aren’t counted in this report.
Reporting: Anna Patrick
Design and development: Lauren Flannery
Editing: Molly Harbarger and Emily M. Eng