King County officials reflect on Health Through Housing criticisms and goals

Dow Constantine and Leo Flor uphold belief in the housing first approach.

Nearly two years into their implementation of the Health Through Housing initiative, King County officials remain steadfast in their housing first approach to the region’s homelessness crisis.

The initiative, which kicked off at the beginning of 2021, levied a one-tenth of one cent sales tax in King County that would raise tens of millions of dollars toward purchasing hotels across the region. The hotels would be converted to permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless and would have on-site service providers that could provide services necessary to help people get back on their feet.

Since the beginning of 2021, more than 10 facilities have been purchased or funded by the county’s initiative, and according to county officials, 600 previously homeless people have been housed across the region. Roughly 1,600 units of housing are expected to soon be available based on how many facilities have been purchased.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said that buying hotels to become housing is much cheaper than building housing from scratch — it costs about $270,000 per unit compared to an estimated $400,000 a unit when built from scratch.

However, county officials have said that the acquisition of hotel space is happening much quicker than the appointment of service providers and the hiring of people to work on-site at these facilities. Last week, the county announced a decision on two service providers at facilities in South King County.

Leo Flor, Director of the Department of Community and Human Services, helps oversee the program. Flor said the service providers will offer full wrap-around services on the grounds of the facility, which include behavioral health care, employment advisers, and even access to transportation so that tenants can have a path toward self-sufficiency and eventually move out on their own.

The program’s philosophy is rooted in a University of Washington study that suggested access to barrier-free housing was a necessary and effective first step to rehabilitating the chronically homeless. Flor said the idea is to provide basic needs and housing to individuals so they can focus on addressing the more complex problems in their lives with the help of service providers.

While the facilities are purchased and owned by the county, Constantine has maintained that city governments would be involved in choosing the service providers in their respective housing facilities. He said city councils have been involved in interviewing prospective service providers and consulting in the process as building partnerships between the county and cities is an important facet of the program.

In the past, the announcement of a Health Through Housing facility has sparked political controversy in different communities. City officials had expressed concern that they would not be able to give input in the implementation of the facilities. Community members across different communities felt that the program would attract homeless individuals from outside communities and that the initiative was a way of exporting “Seattle’s homeless problem.” Some community members have raised concerns over the safety in the areas that surround these facilities.

Recently, a children’s safety advocacy group filed a lawsuit against the county regarding a Kirkland Health Through Housing facility that they believe is too close to adjacent schools.

Constantine said there is a vetting process for prospective tenants of these facilities that is “not dis-similar” from what someone might have to go through to get an apartment. He said tenants are screened to make sure they are an appropriate fit for a multi-family environment, and there are rules they have to agree to.

Flor said that the clients eligible for the program have typically been homeless for more than one year, and they are people who have been connected to social services and health care services in the region, so they have documentation and background information with them.

Speaking to community concerns, Flor said that ultimately the community, the facility operator, and the facilities’ tenants all want the same thing — a place that is supportive, safe and well-run for the community.

He asked a rhetorical question of those concerned with the program: “What if we do nothing?’

He said the homelessness crisis is not a problem that will just go away on its own — rather, it will continue to grow if no action is taken. Flor said it is a simple and relatively cost-effective solution to a problem with more complex root causes. It is a way to mitigate the issue caused by income inequality and a “runaway real estate market,” among other factors.

Flor said the Health Through Housing initiative is a cheaper and more proactive approach to the more reactive and costly ways we collectively pay when the chronically homeless are not helped before it’s too late. He said the cost of three days in the emergency room, for example, is equal to the cost of three months in jail, which is equivalent to the cost of three years of supportive housing for an individual.

He said it is a regional approach to provide equitable access to resources the county’s communities desperately need as a whole.