This afternoon, Council President Bruce Harrell announced the newest Council committee: the Select Committee on Homelessness and Housing Affordability.
This new Select Committee, comprised of all nine Council members, is intended to be “a new and more centralized approach focused on the homelessness issue… a transparent working committee that develops strong policy and investment decisions, as well as enforcement strategies.”
In a press release announcing the new committee, Harrell acknowledged that the Council’s (and the city’s) past work has fallen short of expectations:
“As President of the Council, I feel compelled to change our approach to coordinating and communicating to the public about the city’s homelessness response. While we have made progress with our standing committees that oversee the Human Services Department in defining outcomes and reporting and executing a plan, the public demands more. With that in mind, I am proposing a new and more centralized approach through a committee of all nine Councilmembers focused on this issue,” said Council President Harrell.
“Whether you are an individual experiencing homelessness, an advocate, a homeowner, a renter, business owner, or employee, we as a City remain compassionate for the plight of those experiencing homelessness. There also seems to be a growing intolerance of the current conditions where individuals are living in tents on public right of ways or unsafe areas. We should have the highest standard and, in fact, share a common goal of striving to help all individuals experiencing homelessness transition into permanent housing and providing help to those with mental illness.
“This has been one of the most difficult and complicated problems Seattle has ever been asked to solve. We hear from advocates saying that because we don’t have the affordable housing resources, camping should be tolerated. Conversely, we hear from property owners and business owners saying they pay a large portion of the city’s taxes and expect the city to enforce the law.
“There are clearly different views on how to address Seattle’s homelessness crisis. While there are differences of opinions on homelessness enforcement and taxation to generate additional resources, I think we will continue spinning our wheels if we label those differences as simply opposing sides. My expectation of the Select Committee is to have a transparent working committee that develops strong policy and investment decisions, as well as enforcement strategies.”
Clearly one of the goals for this effort is to move the policy debate about the city’s homelessness response outside of the already-complex budget process. Two years ago during the budget process, Council member Sawant pushed hard for an ambitious proposal to divert funding from the proposed North Precinct project to build 1000 units of affordable housing. And last year, a proposal for an employee head tax derailed the entire budget development process when Budget Chair Lisa Herbold built it into her budget package but it failed to gain majority support among her colleagues. The evidence is certainly strong that the budget development process is not conducive to sound policy debates on homelessness response; instead, it simply turns the budget into high-stakes poker.
That said, coming off the passage and then rapid repeal of the head tax this past spring, it’s also clear that the Council is still nowhere near consensus on the appropriate response to homelessness, including a funding plan (both how much to allocate and where the money should come from). The Council has been silent on alternative plans since repealing the head tax earlier this summer, despite promises that it would continue working on how to fund an increased response. And the Council is in good company: while many rightfully point out that homelessness is a regional crisis needing a regional response, the “One Table” task force recently wrapped up its work with no salient achievements to its name. Once the City Council returns from its recess in September, it will have about a month before it drops everything to work on the 2019-2020 budget. Given the litany of high-profile failures to-date, it’s difficult to believe that the new Select Committee will produce clear policy directives in time to influence this fall’s budget development process.
Longer term, however, creating a new Select Committee may be a step in the right direction. It’s an acknowledgement that the homelessness response cuts across a broad swath of city government (the committee web site lists sixteen different departments involved), and as such has implicated the oversight responsibilities of several Council committees. Indeed, in a nod to this fact the new Select Committee has three co-chairs: Sawant, who oversees the Human Services Department (HSD); Mosqueda, who oversees affordable housing and public health; and Bagshaw, who oversees budget (and formerly oversaw Human Services). Having so many distinct pieces to coordinate is probably sufficient to justify the new committee, but the dysfunction runs deeper, as Sawant’s effectiveness in overseeing HSD has been called into question. In fact, Council members have been circumventing Sawant’s committee when possible: the spring head tax deliberations were run through Bagshaw’s committee, and more recently the quarterly reports for the Navigation Team — which is now part of HSD — have been reviewed in Herbold’s committee. For her part, Sawant hasn’t been shy about using her committee to hold political rallies and for pushing to end unsanctioned homeless camp “sweeps.” Having a new committee of all nine Council members is an admission that if the issues are so broad and “divide and conquer” isn’t working, then they all had better just roll up their sleeves and handle it together.
The new committee is also tasked with other duties beyond setting policy to drive budget priorities:
- Better document and communicate of what is currently being done. This is in response to regular feedback that the public feels in the dark on what is currently being spent, where the money is going, and the results those efforts are getting.
- Define “clarity of instructions” to city departments involved with the city’s homelessness response, such as the protocols for sweeps.
- Enhancing partnerships with King County and the state, as well as with non-profits and faith-based organizations.
- Explore approaches that other jurisdictions have taken to address homelessness, including “safe parking” models.
That broad mandate makes it clear that the effect of this new Select Committee stretches beyond the Council’s budget process, and that the City Council is attempting to establish itself, rather than the Mayor’s Office, in the leadership position on the homelessness response. Tellingly, Mayor Durkan and her office are not mentioned once in the press release.
Of course, whether the Council is successful in taking leadership will depend on whether the nine Council members can build consensus among themselves on appropriate policy and funding options — something that has escaped them to-date. That the Council found itself needing to appoint three co-chairs for the Select Committee is not a good sign. The first meeting of the committee has yet to be scheduled; today’s press release says that the meeting schedule is “forthcoming.”