After a King County task force intended to create a regional response to the homelessness crisis has stalled for months, King County Executive Dow Constantine wants to bond against future tax revenue to put $100 million towards affordable housing.
The plan is to bond against future tax revenue from the hotel-motel tax to build new affordable housing or preserve existing units (though the exact number of units that the proposal would generate is unknown).
“We are making a down payment now,” Executive Constantine said in a release.
The move comes at a time when local elected leaders’ response to the escalating homelessness crisis has an appearance of disarray. In December of last year, Constantine, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus convened the One Table task force, a collection of 75 stakeholders which was supposed to develop a county-wide response to homelessness. The group met several times and county and City of Seattle staff produced draft recommendations which some task force members called underwhelming—the draft called for only 5,000 units of affordable housing and identified no revenue sources to pay it.
One Table was then put on hold for several months while the Seattle City Council debated the head tax for large businesses, which would’ve put $47 million annually towards affordable housing. Seattle City Councilmember and One Table member Teresa Mosqueda told The Seattle Times that the task force stalled “precisely because there was no funding mechanism.” After the council passed and then quickly repealed the tax after backlash, Executive Constantine—who had come out against the tax—urged for a “renewed push for a regional response.”
In the June 20 release, Constantine (along with Seattle and Auburn mayors Durkan and Backus) points to the proposed $100 million in bonds, existing investments from Seattle (such as a one-time $6.3 million allocation for 500 new emergency shelter beds), and the recent agreement between Seattle and King County to restructure regional homelessness programs as evidence that countywide action is being orchestrated. The release also states that One Table task force, which has not met since April and has produced no formal recommendations, will also be reconvened in July.
Upcoming changes to available funding from the hotel-motel tax make Constantine’s bonding proposal feasible. Traditionally used to fund sports stadiums, the tax will finish paying off Centurylink Field by 2020, freeing up roughly $36 million in that year. (The annual revenue from the tax is also expected to increase over time due to rosy revenue projections). State law mandates that 37.5 percent of the tax revenue go to affordable housing, another 37.5 percent to arts programs, and the remainder to tourism activities.
But the bonding plan isn’t exactly new or entirely of Constantine’s own initiative. In 2016, the county approved a similar bond against hotel tax revenue, generating around $87 million and is projected to fund the construction and preservation of 1,700 affordable units across the county. That 2016 bond was financed by the same portion of the hotel-motel tax reserved for affordable housing development by state law. In short: The money that Constantine is proposing to bond against was already required to go towards affordable housing before Constantine put out a release framing the bond as a new investment. The main difference is that he wants to spend it sooner rather than later.
“I’m glad that he’s proposing that we speed that up,” King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove told Seattle Weekly. “It’s a good thing. But we’re required by state law to do that and we’ve always planned on doing that. It’s nothing new at all.”
Meanwhile, Constantine has also proposed putting a portion of that new ongoing revenue into Safeco Field maintenance—to the tune of $180 million through 2043—drawing criticism Upthegrove who argues that the money could be spent on affordable housing since state law requires only that the remainder of the hotel-motel tax revenue be spent on tourism.
“There’s not much new in there that I’ve seen,” Upthegrove said of Constantine’s June 20 release. “It would be much more meaningful and more impactful if we could use much or all of the money being proposed for Safeco. I don’t understand why upgrades at Safeco are a higher priority. It’s a missed opportunity.”
Additionally, Constantine has proposed other investments related to the region’s homelessness crisis. He also wants to allocate $500,000 for Seattle’s homeless outreach team—formally dubbed the Navigation Team—and fund increased access to medication-assisted treatment for those suffering from opioid use disorder and behavioral health services in shelters through $12 million in “unspent revenues” from an existing countywide sales tax, per the June 20 announcement.
The county’s announcement doesn’t mention how many new units experts think need to build to adequately address the regional homelessness and affordable housing crisis. According to Mark Ellerbrook, manager of regional housing at the county’s Human Services and Community Development department, 90,000 additional units for people making zero to 50 percent of the area median income are needed to meet regional demand. And a recent King County audit found that a lack of both affordable and market-rate housing severely hinders the ability of local governments and nonprofits to transition people out of homelessness.
Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, told Seattle Weekly that while the $100 million bonding plan is appreciated, it still dances around the edges of what is needed to truly confront the problem. “Making the most of what we have? Check. Getting very clear about the fact that in order to do what must be done, we need additional revenue? Not yet check,” she said. “Without significant, dedicated new resources we will not house people and housing is the solution.”