Council advances expansion to sanctioned encampments and “tiny home” villages

Late this afternoon, the City Council advanced out of committee a bill that would increase the maximum number of permitted homeless encampments and loosen the rules for extending their permits.

A couple of meta-issues permeated the discussion in this afternoon’s deliberations. One was that, despite Sawant focusing her arguments on tiny home villages, the bill itself expanded permitting for all interim sites, including tent-based encampments. But at the same time, several Council members reminded the group that nearly all of the current tiny home villages began as smaller tent-based encampments, established themselves, and then switched over to tiny homes. This is a bit disingenuous, because some of them predate the introduction of “tiny homes” as temporary shelter solutions for the homeless, and given the opportunity might have done even better if they started right away as tiny home villages rather than upgrading at a later point. Nevertheless, some Council members defended the need to allow encampment sites to start as tents first.

Another recurring was the spin-up of the regional homeless authority, and whether the city should plow ahead with creating more enncampment sites and tiny home villages now or wait for the new authority to take the lead on defining the proper evidence-based strategy.

Eight amendments were considered this afternoon; four were approved. Those four were:

  • one by Mosqueda that updated the recitals in the beginning of the bill to establish the Council’s intent to review the cap on encampments again in the future as the situation evolves. It passed unanimously.
  • one by Lewis that requires that encampments receiving city funds comply with HSD or the regional homeless authority’s contract performance standards. This was recognized as somewhat redundant because it’s already standard practice in the city, but Lewis felt that it was importat the the public see that commitment codified in the bill. There was also some expression of continuing dissatisfaction with the current set of metrics imposed upon enncampments and villages, particular the use of “exits to permanent housing”  when there is little to no permanent affordbale housign to exit to. But that issue was punted to another day, and the amendment passed unanimously.
  • one by Herbold that would require encampments to be geographically spread across the seven Council districts (currently onyly District 5 doesn’t have one), and maintains a one-mile separation between encampmens until all sevel districts have at least one. Morales was the lead objector to this amendment, which she said inspired the cynic in her as she recalled the prior NIMBY fights over siting encampments; she was wary of creating a situation where one holdout district could stop the entire system from moving forward. Nevertheless it passed by a 4-2 vote, with Sawant and Morales the onyl two “no” votes.
  • Another by Herbold that establishes setbacks to from adjacent lot lines. The current rules require a 25-foot setback from residential lots; Sawant’s proposed bill removed the setback altogether, as part of allowing for the permitting of encamoments in residential zones. Herbold’s amendment re-established setbacks, but smaller ones: 10 feet to an adjacent residential lot, 5 feet to any other kind of lot, and no setback from a lot that has no established use. Sawant argued against it, notign that tiny homes already have walls. But Herbold reminded Sawant that the bill isn’t just for tiny homes; it is for all encampment sites.  The amendment was adopted by a 4-2 vote, with Sawant and Morales again teh two “no” votes.

The failed amendments cast an interesting light on the Council members’ thinking as well. Pedersen offered a substitute, major rewrite of Sawant’s bill that made it more of a “placeholder” until the regional homeless authority could take over the permitting of encampments; it extended by two years the sunset date for the current authorization for permitted encampments, which is set to expire at the end of March (and is causing this bill to be rushed through now). But it reduced the maximum number of permitted encampments from Sawant’s proposed 40 down to 10, just slightly above what exists now. Pedersen couldn’t convince any of his peers to support that approach.  Lewis tried for a middle ground with a separate amendment reducing the number to 20; that failed by a 3-3 vote. And Pedersen’s attempt to effectively restrict the permitting of new encampments to only tiny home villages also failed badly — again because of his colleagues’ conviction that tiny home villages grow organically from tent-based encampments.

Because the bill is being rushed through, there was some frustration that the Council members didn’t see the proposed amendments until Sunday afternoon and thus had little time to consider the complex issues involved and consult with stakeholders. But with the current authorization for encampment permits expiring on March 31, the clock is running out to pass a new authorization before that one runs out: most bills take effect no less than 30 days after they are ratified by the Mayor, which means that the Council needs to give final approval and the Mayor needs to sign it before the end of the month.

The council members also frequently reminded themselves that this bill doesn’t actually create new homeless encampments or tiny home villages; those require funding, and must go through the city’s permitting process. The funding is, of course, the limiting factor: while the Council added funding for an additiona few villages, that wil only take the total into the low teens — nowhere near the 40 cap in the bill advanced today.

The bill was voted out of committee by a 5-0-1 vote, with Pedersen abstaining – as he frequently does when his amendments are rejected. It comes up for final approval next Tuesday in the full Council meeting.