Federal Way motel could become temporary emergency shelter

Public comments are due to the City of Federal Way by Feb. 6.

Update: This story has been updated Jan. 26 with new information from King County.

A planned emergency shelter at Federal Way’s former Red Lion Hotel is still not ready, and the King County Regional Homeless Authority — with the help of nonprofit Catholic Community Services and funding from King County — is looking to use the Stevenson Motel on Pacific Highway as a stopgap measure.

The city hadn’t received an application for a permit at the Red Lion yet, city administrator Brian Davis said during the city’s Jan. 17 council meeting. City staff couldn’t give an estimate as to when the shelter would be ready to house people in need.

The Red Lion project’s speed bumps are due to contamination clean-up and pipes that burst earlier this winter, county spokesperson Cameron Satterfield said in an email Jan. 26. (King County owns the former Red Lion property and will manage the shelter when it is finished.)

“A small amount of contamination” was found that required cleanup from a contractor, but some non-hazarodus residue left behind afterward affected the facility’s fire alarm system and necessitated more work, Satterfield said. Additionally, sub-freezing temperatures this winter caused a couple of water pipes to burst and require repairs.

“We are working with the remediation contractor to address the residue that was left behind after the cleanup and the repairs needed to the fire system, and expect to have those issues resolved very soon,” Satterfield said.

The project by King County — which is a separate entity from the King County RHA — to use the Red Lion to address the homelessness crisis was announced in 2021. The county does not have a forecasted opening date for the building, King County Community and Human Services spokesperson Rogers said.

In the meantime, the Stevenson may be used as a temporary option for shelter.

Regional nonprofit Catholic Community Services (CCS) filed a change of land use application with the city in December last year to use 22 of the 23 rooms at the Stevenson Motel for temporary, short-term emergency shelter. Notice was posted Jan. 20 and in last week’s edition of The Mirror.

The proposed change would put CCS in charge of providing emergency, first-come first-served shelter at those rented rooms.

“Federal Way does not have a lot of emergency shelter options, so the goal here is to give people a safe and stable place to go where they are inside and can have their needs met,” said Anne Martens, spokesperson for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. “My understanding is it will also be fenced and gated and fully connected to services, all of which is managed by [CCS].”

KC RHA will contract with CCS to provide funding and oversight for staffing and services at the shelter, while funding for the building itself will come from other sources, including King County, Martens said.

The motel’s private owner would remain the same if the proposal passes, and the emergency shelter arrangement would be in place until the Red Lion is ready, said City of Federal Way spokesperson Steve McNey. While the motel is based in Federal Way and needs city approval for this change of purpose, the ensuing shelter would not be managed by the city.

According to the city, the shelter would provide space for 40 people, or up to 48 if couples are sheltered. There would be case management services on site.

Nearby residents will have the opportunity to appeal the decision, though there is a fee to do so. Public comments are due to the city by Feb. 6. Once public comment has been considered and incorporated, the city will make a final decision, with conditions on the project if approved.

The city has an obligation to make space for shelters due to the state legislature’s passage in 2021 of House Bill 1220, which modified the state Growth Management Act to require governments to plan and accommodate for housing across all income levels.

Among other things, the law forbids cities from prohibiting transitional or permanent supportive housing in areas zoned to allow residential dwellings or hotels. It also restricted cities’ abilities to say no to indoor emergency shelters and housing in areas where hotels are allowed.

To stay in compliance with that new state law, the city and council in 2021 approved standards and limitations for how such shelters could be set up.

The basics: The shelter can’t be within 1,000 feet of a public school or any other emergency shelter; must be close to transit, stores and other services; must be operated by a responsible agency, social service or governing board; must have security and supervision; can’t have an unreasonable impact of traffic, utilities or other nearby residences; and must have a written community engagement plan.

Councilmembers at the Jan. 17 meeting asked the city to include day cares and private schools alongside public schools in the city’s 1,000-foot rule standard; city staff said they will be looking into the code again, but cautioned that adding too many limitations on where a shelter is placed could risk blocking out any spaces from being available at all, which would amount to a “de facto moratorium,” city administrator Brian Davis said.

Councilmember Erica Norton asked what would happen if the city was to simply refuse to adhere to King County’s rules on providing housing.

Though the city hasn’t inquired about that specifically, the typical repercussion would involve the city losing access to PSRC grant money, city Community Development Director Keith Niven replied.

The long-term plan by the county is to operate a permanent housing program at the former Red Lion Inn and Suites at Federal Way, located at the intersection of 16th Avenue S and 348th St near the I-5 interchange. That project is not related to the work of the Regional Homelessness Authority, which focuses specifically on crisis response, Martens said.

The two-story, 55,000-square-foot hotel was converted into temporary housing in 2020 by an emergency declaration from Public Health — Seattle and King County. King County bought the property in September 2021 for $10.96 million, according to the county assessor’s office data. It is now referred to by county data as “Federal Way Inn & Suites.”

The State Department of Commerce gave King County $8.9 million in fall 2021 to provide 84 shelter units at the defunct hotel. That money was part of the state’s Rapid Capital Housing Acquisition fund, which fuels efforts to acquire or rent property that can be turned into emergency shelter, permanent or transitional housing, youth housing, drop-in centers or shelter for people very low incomes.

Redeveloping the hotel will cost over $11 million, according to the State Department of Commerce. Satterfield said the county is still assessing the current cost of the project but hopes to have a firm estimate “in the next several weeks.”