On a chilly Monday afternoon, case manager Richard Gibson walked through the courtyard at Martin Court in the southwest corner of Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood.
The weather in the days before had taken a cold turn, and the colorful children’s playground he strode past sat vacant. Lining either side of the courtyard and parking lot were rows of doors, each one housing an individual or family experiencing homelessness.
And each one represents security, and a place to get out of the weather, for the people who live there.
“That’s just extremely important,” Gibson said.
Martin Court is one of several similar properties run by the Low Income Housing Institute, which provides housing for people in King County. It’s a former motel that was retrofitted two decades ago into temporary supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness.
Residents can stay at Martin Court for up to two years as they get their bearings. Gibson and his colleague Charmaine Day help the residents get services like mental health counseling, finding permanent housing and even healthy cooking classes. Administrators say the program is largely successful, with most people moving into permanent housing after their stay at Martin Court.
And it’s programs like this that could be expanded under the recently approved King County Health through Housing ordinance. The ordinance was approved by the Metropolitan King County Council on Oct. 13.
It created a 0.1% sales tax, which the county is planning on bonding against, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for affordable housing projects.
This funding can be used to buy existing hotels, motels and nursing homes, then turn them into emergency and affordable housing units with services for mental and behavioral health. The original proposal would have raised nearly $68 million a year, allowing the county to raise $400 million in bonds. But seven cities enacted their own version of the tax, reducing the amount the county will collect by some $17 million a year.
King County Department of Community and Human Services Director Leo Flor said they’re still calculating how much they will be able to bond for.
But as hotels, motels and nursing homes likely go up for sale in significant numbers due to the economic fallout and reduced travelers from the coronavirus pandemic, Flor said the county is hoping to buy them.
“We expect, and are seeing, signs of opportunities in that market,” Flor said.
The ordinance could create housing for up to 2,000 people by 2022. According to the 2020 Point-In-Time Count, there were some 11,751 people experiencing homelessness across the county last winter.
Flor said the county is experiencing three crises that feed into the current homelessness crisis. The first is the coronavirus pandemic, which is making congregate shelter dangerous. The second is the economic crisis that has been creating homelessness for years as housing becomes too expensive for many to afford. The third is the crisis around systemic racism, which causes disproportionate homelessness in some communities.
Black, indigenous and other communities of color are disproportionately affected by homelessness, according to the Point-In-Time Count.
In addition to addressing homelessness immediately, there’s evidence that stable, single-room housing — like those provided by converted hotels — is keeping people safer during the pandemic.
A recently-released study from the University of Washington found that this kind of shelter kept people from contracting the coronavirus. The study suggested it was lessening the number of outbreaks.
“That was kind of a ‘mission accomplished’ for the first goal,” said Gregg Colburn, an Associate Professor at the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments.
Stable housing gives people a sense of stability, safety and security — a place to regroup and begin to think about their futures again without the mental stress of surviving on the streets.
Those benefits are something that Lynn DeMarco, the area manager in charge of Martin Court, sees. The goal of the two-year program at the former hotel is to get people into permanent housing, and give them the skills they need to be successful and keep housing.
“Our job is to make sure that, first off, to get them out of crisis. To get them healthy, physically, mentally,” DeMarco said.
Even offering housing at motels on a temporary basis has proven effective in the Snoqualmie Valley. The Snoqualmie Valley Shelter Services has been running a motel voucher program for its most medically vulnerable residents.
The next step is finding permanent housing, which the county is in short supply of. King County set a goal last year to build or preserve 44,000 affordable housing units within five years. It’s a step toward the roughly 156,000 affordable units the county needs today, and the additional 88,000 units it will need by 2040.
That step is where Martin Court resident Alvin Sweet is now. Sweet moved to Martin Court a year and a half ago with his girlfriend. Before, they were living at a tiny home camp in South Lake Union.
They’re hoping to find permanent housing next, but he said he’s found a community at Martin Court.