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King County will buy hotels to permanently house 1,600 homeless people

UPDATED: Tue., May 11, 2021

By Scott Greenstone Seattle Times

King County will buy the Inn at Queen Anne, a hotel that has been housing homeless people in Seattle for roughly a year, as well as four or five other hotels in the coming weeks. Executive Dow Constantine said that it is part of an effort to house 1,600 people in hotels by the end of 2022.

Constantine has been promising such a purchase since last year, when he asked the Metropolitan King County Council to pass a sales tax to fund the move. It’s a response in part to the growing number of tents in the Seattle area since the pandemic hit, and in part a response to a growing chorus of homeless advocates asking elected leaders to do away with the old form of overnight homeless shelter.

“This could be the moment where we’re able to turn the tide on this thing – we’ve just got to unite around it,” Constantine said in an interview before his public announcement during Tuesday’s state of the county address. “We’ve got to get to the point where we can say to the next person who’s showing up with their tent, ‘I have a better alternative for you. It’s not a place with a mat on the floor where you’re going to get kicked out in the morning.’”

The county has been spending down its reserves to keep hotel shelters open since the pandemic began, leaving residents and homelessness nonprofit leaders worried that people staying there would end up back on the street at any moment. Now, the 80 or so people already staying at the inn won’t necessarily have to find another place to stay when the pandemic ends.

The residents, who are over 55 years old, originally came from the St. Martin de Porres shelter south of downtown, where they slept on mats on the ground six inches apart before the pandemic. They won’t be required to leave at any point, according to Dan Wise, deputy director of nonprofit shelter operator Catholic Community Services, and will have access to caseworkers and medical, behavioral health and housing resources.

“Is it shelter? Is it housing? What that might look like for each individual might be different,” Wise said. “Some folks might be managed and living in that space for a long time. Other folks might just need a pause in that space while they’re looking for different housing.”

Constantine hopes the purchases made this spring will house between 500 and 600 homeless people this summer, although the county won’t yet announce the other locations, some of which are outside Seattle. By the end of 2022, the county hopes to have bought enough hotels to triple that.

While this is the first of several purchases, it comes many months behind states like Oregon and California, which have been buying up scores of hotels since last year, investing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Constantine said the county has welcomed aid from the Washington state government, which provided millions to counties for whatever kind of shelter they wanted to stand up. But he blamed a lack of further aid on the fact that Washington doesn’t have an income tax like Oregon and California.

Constantine and the county council imposed a 0.1% county sales tax with a $400 million bonding package to pay for these hotels. The county will buy the Inn at Queen Anne for $16.5 million. The building’s assessed value is only about $9.5 million, but Constantine pointed out assessed value and market values are often far different.

“There’s a lot of value in getting these hotels before the travel market comes back,” Constantine said. “It’s a remarkably good location, so some day … I think it will turn out to have been a good investment as well.”

The Inn is right next to Seattle Center, in an area where there are a good number of other shelters somewhat close by, and hasn’t met organized resistance from neighbors. But a few other hotel shelters that were set up quickly last year around Seattle have generated outcry in the surrounding communities.

In Renton, the local City Council passed an ordinance requiring a hotel full of more than 200 residents, who came from downtown Seattle’s biggest shelter, to empty by the end of the year.

Renton and several other large King County cities also opted out of sending their sales tax money directly to buy these hotels, many saying they’d prefer to decide whether the money should go to Constantine’s plan or something else.

State Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-West Seattle, who’s running this year to replace Constantine as King County executive, criticized Constantine for failing to support Renton in taking on the hotel shelter.

“There was already distrust before – and candidly, the way you approach a problem, the way you communicate is almost as important as what you do,” Nguyen said. “What the cities have felt is they didn’t have any other options to speak up on behalf of their cities.”

Constantine said the county had to act quickly to empty out shelters so the coronavirus wouldn’t spread, which didn’t leave time to do the amount of outreach and compromise the county normally would.

“We will work with the cities, city governments and agree on the hotel or hotels we will pursue,” Constantine said. “It’s different than the hotels during the COVID crisis – those were emergency response and emergency declaration to a global pandemic.”

When asked for comment on the purchase of the inn, Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, said that 60% of homeless people receiving city-funded services became homeless outside of the city.

“More housing is needed in Seattle, but Seattle alone can’t solve the homelessness crisis for all the cities in King County,” Hightower wrote.

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