King County Executive Dow Constantine addresses One Table members at the group’s Aug. 3 meeting at Seattle City Hall. Photo by Josh Kelety

King County Executive Dow Constantine addresses One Table members at the group’s Aug. 3 meeting at Seattle City Hall. Photo by Josh Kelety

One Table Has No Clear Game Plan for Regional Homelessness

Seattle and King County’s joint task force to address the crisis still only has vague strategies.

Back in January, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus convened the One Table task force—a group of over 70 business leaders, homeless service providers, nonprofit affordable housing developers, local elected officials, and other stakeholders—with the goal of developing “community action steps to confront the root causes of homelessness under an “aggressive timeline.” When the formation of the group was announced, Durkan said in a press release that it was designed to “create a regional, coordinated approach and holistic response to our homelessness crisis.”

However, a “regional, coordinated approach” has yet to materialize roughly eight months into One Table’s existence. While the task force has produced a very broad set of policy recommendations, it still has no way at this point of ensuring that local governments, non-profits, or the private sector actually pursue them.

On Friday, Aug. 3, the group convened for a meeting at Seattle City Hall, where the chairs and their staff tried to claim the project as a success that had produced tangible results. “We have a set of recommendations to move forward,” Constantine said before the assembled task force in the Bertha Knight Landes room. “Those recommendations represent our region’s collective commitment.”

But there’s very little that’s tangible in group’s final recommendations. The nine-page document is essentially a outline of relatively familiar policy ideas that still lack any clear financing mechanism or timeline. In the affordable housing section of the recommendations calls for increasing “financial resources at the local, state and federal level to build more affordable housing,” as well as enacting land use policies that promote dense development with affordable units. Similarly, the criminal justice portion vaguely calls for work with staff of the justice system to “increase understanding on homelessness and housing needs.”

After several initial meetings in the spring, the group only had draft recommendations that identified broad “priority actions” such as building 5,000 affordable homes over the next five years and employing 1,300 people at risk of becoming homeless. But the draft did not identify any ways to pay for the proposed investments. In response, some One Table members argued that the draft was underwhelming since it featured neither new revenue sources or strategies appropriate for the scale of the regional homelessness crisis. (The draft was allegedly informed by task force discussions, but ultimately created by county officials.) County officials have estimated that the region needs around 90,000 additional units of housing affordable to those making less than 50 percent of area median income.

While One Table was slated to roll out its recommendations back in May, the group’s meetings were suspended over the next few months while the controversial employee head tax (which would’ve funded affordable housing and homeless services) was debated in Seattle. In mid-May the Seattle City Council passed the tax, only to repeal it in early June after backlash from the business community and the general public. After the tax was walked back Executive Constantine told The Seattle Times that One Table was “very close” to producing final recommendations given that the uncertainty around a potential new funding source had been cleared up.

At the Aug. 3 meeting, Rachel Smith, Executive Constantine’s chief of staff, told Seattle Weekly that the county plans to hire consultants to develop a “regional action plan” which would contain “specific plans, costs, and measurable outcomes for change.” She also said that the plan would serve as a “roadmap” that local governments, businesses, and philanthropists can use to guide their own investments (there is, however, no timeline for the rollout of this more detailed plan).

“The next stage is implementation, to get a plan, to make it real, for housing, for behavioral health, for employment, on the criminal justice system, for our foster care system, because we can not be sitting in these rooms year after year and not take basic actions.” Durkan said at the meeting. “We have the moral obligation to act.”

Gordon McHenry, CEO of the anti-poverty non-profit Solid Ground and One Table member, told Seattle Weekly that many individuals on the task force were hoping that a clearly financed plan would be rolled out at the Aug. 3 meeting. “We don’t have a plan yet,” he said. “Implementing these strategies with a resourced plan is still a significant challenge … I think that’s where the hard work is.”

Mark Putnam, former director of All Home (the public entity charged with coordinating the regional homelessness response) and One Table member, said that while the county’s move to hire a consultant to flesh out a detailed plan with cost estimates is a step in the right direction, the pace at which the initative is moving isn’t quick enough. “This is progress but it’s frustrating slow,” he said in a phone interview. “They need to act fast and get some action going alongside the planning.”

Despite the fact that the actual plan has yet to be developed, the meeting saw One Table’s co-chairs call upon the task force members to state which strategies from the “recommendations” that they could commit to pursuing, as well as what they thought was needed from the rest of the task force.

“Each one of these people is going to be tasked with: ‘What are you going to do to bring us closer to these recommendations?’” Constantine spokesperson Alex Fryer told reporters during the meeting. (Notably, during the course of the meeting, no elected officials or private-sector representatives publicly stated that they would allocate resources towards any of the strategies in the final recommendations. If any new funding plans have been made privately, they’ve yet to be announced.)

When asked how the One Table members were going to be held to their commitments, Fryer said that they’re essentially relying on the goodwill of the group. “These folks are all committed to doing what they can about homelessness. These people want to help, they want to be directed,” he said. “If someone wants to drag their feet and say ‘I don’t want to do it,’ there’s no measure for us to discipline [them].”

McHenry said that he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the various members of One Table with resources (such as the business community) are committed to eventually investing in the strategies that will be laid out in the coming regional action plan.

County officials said that while One Table likely won’t meet regularly in the future as one big group, they will keep in touch with the members to collaborate on potential initiatives and keep them up to speed on the development of the action plan.

At the start of the meeting, Mayor Backus, one of the One Table co-chairs, seemingly undercut the whole point of the task force’s regional approach stating that while homelessness is a county-wide issue, each jurisdiction will handle it differently. “The cities outside of Seattle have different needs. We all have issues, but we all have different needs. And we are probably going to be taking care of those in maybe similar, but somewhat discretely different ways,” she said, “because what works for Auburn isn’t going to work for Bellevue, isn’t going to work for Seattle, and we have to realize that.”

The City of Seattle and King County are working on restructuring All Home to give it more authority to leverage public resources and streamline the efforts of city and county agencies. The recommendations for reforming the organization aren’t slated to come in until Dec. 2018.

Despite the continued lack of the detailed regional action plan, several One Table members that spoke at the Aug. 3 meeting were clear about what they think is needed to address the crisis—increased financial resources. As acting All Home Director Kira Zylstra told the room, “Ultimately, the need is housing and money.”

Update (Aug. 7): This post has been updated to include quotes from Mark Putnam, the former director of All Home and a One Table member.

jkelety@seattleweekly.com

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