For Ron Sims, it might seem a relief to leave King County behind. In the last year, the soon-to-be-former County Executive has taken flack for everything from crappy conditions at the county’s animal shelter to a widening deficit. Meanwhile, thanks to the state’s new top-two primary system, he’s had a member of his own party aggressively nipping at him for months.
Now the man who’s been getting dumped on by everyone from rural landowners to urban Sound Transit supporters will have a new chance to be the hero as Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Local housing and community-development groups are attaching a boatload of hopes to Sims’ appointment at a time when the federal government is already operating deep in the red.
Bill Block, project director at The Committee to End Homelessness, a public-private coalition charged with achieving the famous Ten-Year Plan, wants to see much more cash funneled into Section 8 housing vouchers to subsidize rent. Adrienne Quinn, director of the city’s Office of Housing, thinks the top priority should be more development grants to sustain places like the Downtown Emergency Services Center. And Tara Connor, policy director of the local nonprofit developer Plymouth Housing Group, wants more HUD money directed at support services like mental health care to accompany low-income housing projects.
The wish list is largely the result of what local low-income housing groups, all of which depend on HUD in some form or another, say has been eight years of ever-shrinking support from the federal government.
Sims is heading to HUD with high approval ratings from local housing groups. Quinn praises Sims’ support for mixed-income projects in particular. In 1996, while still a member of the King County Council, Sims backed legislation to evaluate unused county property as potential sites for housing developments. The county then used space in Woodinville to create the 170-unit Greenbrier Heights, catering to seniors having trouble meeting rent and to families looking to buy but without sufficient income to do so.
Connor says Sims also supported Plymouth’s efforts to secure federal funding for things like substance-abuse treatment and occupational training for residents in their 12 low-income housing facilities. But during the Bush years, that money became very difficult to get out of HUD, who, “in the past years, has washed their hands basically of the services element,” she says. At Plymouth, those kinds of programs have gotten the exact same annual dollar amount from HUD—$450,000—since 1996.
Running those programs has only gotten more expensive in the meantime. Connor says her first priority for the agency under Sims’ tenure would be to increase the dollars going to the support programs that help people stay in housing.
Meanwhile, Betsy Lieberman, executive director of housing and service group Building Changes, and Block want Sims to be pushing for more Section 8 certificates. The vouchers are used in pre-selected buildings to help people pay their rent. A recent attempt to get 400,000 additional certificates attached to the economic stimulus package failed in Congress.
HUD spokesperson Jereon Brown says Sims will certainly have the chance to lobby for the priorities of the people he worked with here. Brown says Sims’ responsibilities will include testifying on Capitol Hill and lobbying members of Congress for a bigger HUD budget. He’ll also work with HUD’s new director, Shaun Donovan, from New York City, to decide how to allocate the money that does come in, and manage the day-to-day operations of an agency that last year had a budget of $39 billion (eight times the size of King County’s). “It’s a very massive job,” Brown says.
Of course, Sims’ critics argue that the nitty-gritty management side is where the executive has fallen down (see “Man of Distraction,” SW, Nov. 26, 2008). There have been debacles at the elections division and in the county’s attempts to install a new computer system, for instance. Sims spokesperson Carolyn Duncan says the real picture of Sims’ ability to manage is the way he’s dealt with the current budget crisis—he made deep cuts and convinced the unions to take unpaid furlough days this year to prevent even more pink slips from going out. “He’s a problem solver,” says Duncan. The success of his “life raft” gambit—in which he’s threatening to drown essential programs unless the state legislature reduces the county’s financial obligations or authorizes more taxes—remains to be seen.
So who will win in D.C.—Sims the sometimes-distracted visionary or Sims the dogged manager? A letter Sims wrote to his staff this week about his new job suggests that the executive may still be working on his focus. “I am eager to promote what we have done here in King County, particularly in helping other metropolitan centers adapt to climate change…” he wrote. Housing, Ron, housing.