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Fight over Renton hotel housing homeless escalates

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 24, 2020

Associated Press

Associated Press

RENTON, Wash. – A dispute over a hotel in Renton, Washington, housing homeless people during COVID-19 has escalated between King County government and the city.

The Seattle Times reported this week local officials rushed forward legislation that would set a six-month move-out date at the Red Lion Hotel, where more than 200 homeless people have been staying since April.

At a Renton City Council meeting Monday, the mayor and council members heard almost an hour of testimony from the community about an emergency ordinance to rewrite Renton zoning code to restrict homeless shelters’ placement and operations.

The council did not discuss the proposed measure after the public comment. It could vote the legislation into law as early as next week.

“This ordinance is once again using zoning as a tool to exclude people in ways that are fundamentally inequitable,” said Lindsey Grad, legislative director for the union that represents the shelter’s employees. “It was really low, after yet another hard day of work in the middle of a pandemic, to tell (staff at the shelter) that the work they do is essentially being banned.”

It’s the latest chapter in a protracted fight over homelessness between Renton and King County.

In April, the county moved almost the entire population of the downtown Seattle Morrison Hotel shelter, many of whom have disabilities, serious mental illness or substance use disorders, to the Red Lion close to downtown Renton.

It wasn’t long before Renton businesses, officials, and the mayor began to complain about an increase in 911 calls in the immediate area.

In June, Renton leaders told the county, the shelter operator and the investors’ group that owns the hotel that they were in violation of the city’s zoning codes. The county appealed that decision to the Renton hearing examiner, who ruled that the county needed to apply to the city for a permit or leave but also that the city’s zoning code was vague when it came to homeless shelters.

As a smaller suburb, Renton has never had to deal with a situation like this, according to Chip Vincent, the city’s administrator of community and economic development, who helped write the legislation. Almost all of the city’s shelters are in churches or facilities like City Hall, where they are not the building’s primary use.

Currently, being a homeless shelter would be considered the Red Lion’s primary use.

But the requirements proposed would be hard for a nonprofit service provider to meet, especially one that runs on a shoestring budget.

The proposed requirements include submitting a map of routes staff would encourage clients to use to travel around the city, a plan to maintain “site aesthetics” by cleaning graffiti and picking up trash, a code of conduct that includes not using illegal drugs and a description of consequences for breaking the code of conduct.

In a letter submitted during public comment, local health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said the pandemic would most likely not be over by June 1 and the risk of transmission and severe symptoms among people living outside or in large-scale shelters will remain high.

“The proposed ordinance will risk the health of the homeless persons now safely staying at the Red Lion, and the community,” Duchin said.

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