Effort to create regional governance for homeless response has a rocky road

Last week I wrote that the effort to create a regional governance structure to lead the response to the homelessness crisis was reaching a pivotal moment as a revised plan was brought forth to King County’s Regional Policy Committee and the Seattle City Council. The back-to-back meetings of those two groups last Thursday showed that fractures still remain and the chance of  moving forward with a plan is far from certain.

There are seven major stakeholders in a regional structure:

  • The City of Seattle;
  • King County;
  • All Home King County, which is the official receiving point for HUD regional funding as well as the manager for the HMIS information system, the annual Point-in-Time count of homeless people, and the Coordinated Entry system for people entering the homeless system
  • The smaller cities belonging to the Sound Cities Association (SCA);
  • Philanthropic organizations wishing to contribute resources to the homeless response;
  • Service providers who deliver services to homeless people;
  • The people in the region experiencing homelessness.

The two big players are, of course, Seattle and King County, which together annually spend more than $120 million on homeless response. But their respective contributions largely are complementary, not overlapping, and they already have a partnership in place that helps them to coordinate their efforts. So combining them will create one enormous bureaucracy out of two large ones but won’t create significant operating efficiencies, save a lot of money, or  deliver any new or expanded services. The benefit from a regional structure is in expanding out more services to unincorporated King County and to the smaller cities in the county: those areas don’t have as many services in place, nor service providers to deliver them, and as homeless people move through the region having a centrally-coordinated response system will make it easier to provide consistent, high-quality services to individuals experiencing homelessness.

But here’s the problem: the SCA cities are not on the same page as Seattle and King County with regard to how to solve the homelessness crisis.  Much of it is political: their voter bases are more resistant to being taxed, and some haven’t bought into the “housing first” approach to moving people out of homelessness, preferring a less tolerant approach to substance abuse and mental health issues. But there is also the perception issue: Seattle and King County have thrown an enormous amount of money and effort at solving homelessness, and yet have little to show for it. It is perhaps understandable if they are hesitant to commit themselves to the approach espoused by Seattle and King County — especially before the Regional Action Plan currently being written by consultants at King County’s behest is unveiled early next year, since until then they won’t know what they are committing to support.

And thus lies the challenge at the heart of the effort to establish a regional governance structure: it’s of little value if it’s just Seattle and King County, but it will take some significant negotiation — and compromises — to get the other cities to buy in.

What was presented at the Regional Planning Committee last Thursday was a just such a compromise, with significant concessions to the SCA cities to entice them to buy in — even though the initial agreement is still just between Seattle and King County. Among the provisions in the proposed agreement:

  • It’s based on an interlocal agreement (ILA) to create a new government agency, rather than the earlier approach of creating a Public Development Authority (PDA). A PDA would have had the potential ability to impose taxes and issue bonds as part of its funding strategy; an ILA can do neither.
  • Seattle, King County, and any other cities that choose to participate each will sign a “service agreement” with the agency to determine which specific services will be provided within their jurisdictions.
  • It has a twelve-person Governing Committee, with approval over the major decisions of the new organization. Its members include: the Mayor of Seattle, two Seattle City Council members, the King County Executive, two King County Council members, three representatives from the Sound Cities Association, and three people with lived experience of homelessness.
  • It requires the creation of “subregional plans,” which combined will form the basis of the new organization’s 5-year plan for addressing homelessness.

Together these are enormous concessions to the smaller cities, and in fact the agreement gives them tremendous power while costing them nothing: Seattle and King County are footing the bill for startup and initial operations, yet the SCA cities have 1/4 of the seats on the governing committee even before any SCA city signs a service agreement with the agency. Moreover, because some of the governing committee’s most critical votes will require supermajorities, the SCA caucus will have an effective veto over any of those decisions it disagrees with. Thursday morning, Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell tried to further cement the SCA cities’ veto power by amending the proposal to require an 80% majority of the twelve-member committee for certain major decisions (the Regional Policy Committee rejected his amendment). Harrell said that his intent was to drive the committee to consensus; however, he might want to spend some time considering whether it’s even possible for the factions on the proposed governing committee to reach consensus on critical issues before he requires it and potentially dooms the new organization to permanent deadlock.

Meanwhile, the subregional plans would allow the SCA cities to circumvent attempts to apply a consistent approach, theory of change, and Regional Action Plan across all participating jurisdictions.

So Seattle and King County have essentially conceded everything to the smaller cities: the cities would share power over the organization without even needing to participate or contribute, and if they do join, they can write their own plan that is potentially inconsistent with the homeless response in other parts of the county. And they can’t be taxed.

Last Thursday afternoon, Seattle City Council members raised these points and more as they expressed their skepticism over the proposed plan. Council member Herbold said that she expected funding to be “a part of the conversation” for a regional authority so homelessness response doesn’t continue to be piecemeal funded — and underfunded — across the region. Gonzalez raised the concern that while she views Seattle as being “very generous” in subsidizing the needs for homeless individuals — independent of whether they are Seattle residents — there is no such reciprocity in the agreement as it applies to SCA member cities. She also raised the larger concern about the expectations on the new organization:

“I’m not objecting to us contributing to the regional solution. I’m objecting to the seeming lack of reciprocity in terms of the realities of what the scale of the need is and what funding will be required to meaningfully address the scale of the need. I want to make sure that we’re setting the right expectations here. If we still have limited funds because the city of Seattle is making the most significant contribution, then we shouldn’t set the expectation that this is going to be solved in short order, because that’s just not real.”

Both Gonzalez and Herbold expressed great concern about the effect of subregional plans, including the potential that Seattle dollars might be spent on approaches that don’t align with the city’s “housing first” model. “I don’t want to foreclose the opportunity for addressing specific needs,” Gonzalez said, “but I don’t want plans that are punitive or are strategies and programs that we know don’t work, haven’t worked, will never work, like jail for example.” Herbold sounded a similar note:

“We use a housing-first model in Seattle. Not requiring sobriety in order to provide housing. I’m really concerned that this language being stripped out is them saying that they want to have rules on their housing that restrict people from coming inside, that create barriers from people coming inside and addressing their underlying issues. I think it’s troubling that this seems to be the step that we’re starting out on. And I hope I’m wrong on this. I hope there’s a broad recognition that this is a regional issue and that we need regional resources and transformative structures, but also that in order to bring inside people who have drug addiction issues, substance abuse disorder, and mental illnesses we have to provide housing first and remove the barriers to housing. When we talk about evidence-based models, those are the models we’re talking about. We’re not just using lingo up here.”

Both Gonzalez and Herbold also voiced their concerns that the new proposal has a more prominent role for elected officials and a stepped-back role for subject-matter experts, creating a risk that sound, evidence-based policy based on national best practices will  take a back seat to politics in the homeless response.

Gonzalez summed up her concerns about the proposed plan by saying:

“We as the Seattle City Council have a duty and obligation not to just rubber-stamp what is coming out of the Regional Policy Committee, but to be as transparent and as honest as possible in acknowledging the reality that we are potentially about to take action on implementing an All Home 2.0, that doesn’t have the ability to address the revenue issues associated with the scale of the need here, that still retains significant power amongst the elected officials, and that has some representation from people who are familiar with the lived experience of homelessness but that voice is certainly in the small minority in terms of representation on the governing committee. I just don’t want us to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re doing something transformative when it appears that we’re just taking one little teeny tiny step towards trying to do it a little different.”

Where does that leave things? Officials in both Seattle and King County are hoping to get the agreement ratified by the end of the year, but obviously there is still quite the chasm to bridge before that happens. At least some of the City Council members aren’t happy with the compromises and concessions in the most recent proposal, but rolling them back risks driving away the SCA cities even further — though they’re not clamoring to get on board even with the concessions in place.

On Wednesday, the proposal goes in front of the full King County Council for approval, and on Thursday it comes up with the City Council’s Select Committee on Homelessness and Housing Affordability again. If the City Council amends it, then it must go back to the Regional Policy Committee for review and re-vote. Given the current state of things, the odds are not great that Seattle and King County will come to an agreement by the end of the year as they had hoped; and if they do, it’s unlikely to be one that other SCA cities will be eager to join. So don’t be surprised if negotiations stall and then extend out into 2020. And even if they do get an agreement done, don’t expect other cities to join in until spring 2020 at the very earliest, after the Regional Action Plan is published in February.

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