King County is looking to add homeless shelters while many of its buildings remain vacant

The Seattle Times Homeless Project is funded by BECU, the Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, the Seattle Foundation and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times retains editorial control of Project Homeless content.

King County continues to buy hotels and apartment buildings and try to meet its goal of housing 1,600 homeless people. But it has yet to reach half of its occupancy target as five of its ten properties are vacant.

Just months before the new year, the county has used more than $230 million from a 2020 sales tax on real estate in Seattle and five suburban cities as part of its Health Through Housing initiative. The county is in the final stages of purchasing a new 35-unit apartment building in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

ItIt has taken months — and sometimes more than a year — to open the properties the county already owns.

As of September 1, 357 people lived in four of the ten Health Through Housing buildings purchased by King County. Another 118 people live in two Seattle apartment buildings that are funded to operate but owned by the city, a total of 475. A fifth building is used to house refugees.

Some of these investments, like the Capitol Hill building, are also designed to further the county’s equity goals. If purchased, the homes will house queer, transgender, black, indigenous and other people of color. The sale is expected to be completed by early October.

“This is part of our annual effort to reduce racial disproportionality in chronically homeless communities,” said Mario Williams-Sweet, King County Major Initiatives Manager.

Although Blacks make up 7% of King County’s population, they make up a quarter of the county’s homeless population, according to the 2022 Point In Time census. American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and other Native Americans make up 9% of the county’s homeless population, compared to 1% of the total population.

The district plans to move in by the end of the year.

In the early months of the pandemic, the county benefited from the chaos that COVID had wreaked on the travel industry. In October 2020, the county approved a 0.1% sales tax to capitalize on a struggling market to buy vacant hotels and new apartment buildings. County Executive Dow Constantine announced a plan to use them for permanent housing with attached social services for people who have long been homeless and suffer from physical, mental or behavioral health problems, including addictions, which bring additional challenges around security and maintaining stable housing.

In the first year, the county estimates the cost of operating the existing sites at $25,000 per unit. Sales tax, which is a permanent source of income, funds operations at each location. Some homeless hotel programs across the country have recently had to close because they ran out of government funds, but Katie Rogers, spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Communities and Human Services, said the county’s tax revenues are designed to prevent that.

So far, the acquisition part of the plan has worked. Following the sale of Capitol Hill, the county must purchase at least two more properties, totaling 13 properties, Rogers said.

But it was more difficult to move people inside.

At the beginning of the year, 180 people lived in two buildings. At the time, county officials pointed to a shortage of homeless workers for the delays. And not much has changed.

“There aren’t enough people doing this work. And there are not enough people who can afford this work. So we need to address this head-on,” said Leo Flor, Director of Community and Human Services.

Additionally, King County said subcontractors hired to make changes to buildings have taken longer than expected and some locations have needed more time to engage with community members about the new locations.

Some properties have been involved in community or legal disputes.

In March, King County acquired its 10th property in Kirkland for $28.7 million near Eastside Preparatory School.

Soon after, a group of parents and residents called Keep Kids Safe sued the county and city of Kirkland, saying they failed to hold public meetings required prior to purchasing the property. For this reason, according to the lawsuit, the purchase of 121 units should be cancelled.

The lawsuit caused turbulence that lasted through August and was eventually dismissed.

In Renton, the City Council passed legislation requiring residents of a county-funded former Red Lion to move out and issued regulations on where and how homeless shelters can operate.

The county has since returned to Renton, opening a Health Through Housing facility in a former Extended Stay America. It creates permanent, supportive housing for more than 100 people. Each former hotel, including the Renton site, will have up to 60% of the homeless units available in the town in which it is located.

“It started as a disagreement,” Flor said of the county’s efforts to accommodate people in hotels in Renton, “and what resulted, I believe, is an enduring partnership.”

Most Health Through Housing locations allow residents to stay indefinitely. But so far, three of the opened locations don’t meet the district’s status as “permanent supportive” housing because they don’t have certain amenities like cooking units. These units are considered “emergency shelters.”

People living in temporary shelters in Seattle can move to other permanent supportive housing facilities in the county if they can secure a place, or they can live in their current home indefinitely. The county will eventually retrofit the sites with the necessary amenities to achieve permanent supported housing status.

The county says four more Health Through Housing properties will open by the end of the year, totaling 318 units. And that two more are to be opened by the end of March 2023.


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