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Have Cities Made the Right Choice on Regional Housing?

This month, we watched several King County local governments grapple with a question on the housing crisis faced by our region. Do we pot our resources with the county, or do we take local control? Renton, and other cities, opted for local control, while others, like Federal Way, opted for the county. Was it the right choice? Only time will tell.

Councilmember Randy Corman made clear when the vote was upon the City Council that he was supporting local control for the sake of green-lighting existing Renton Housing Authority projects. Councilmember Valerie O’Halloren made the most transparent statement against the county, complaining about control over tax dollars and programs, which was echoed by County Councilmember Reagan Dunn another day at Renton’s State of the County, the only county councilmember to oppose the proposal.

To say that Renton, or others, are “on their own” would be slightly inaccurate, as it recently joined with other cities in SKHHP (pronounced skip), the South King Housing & Homelessness Partners. However, the members of this group have gone both directions in their support for the county’s 0.1% sales tax. It will be interesting to see how these layers respond with the county and potentially work together. Ultimately, however, the evolution of the Seattle model towards more regionalization will likely repeat for these municipalities.

In the 1990s, Seattle passed a resolution to end homelessness, an ambitious project for a small city about to become the metropolitan hub of the Pacific Northwest. A sharp rise in unhoused communities after the Great Recession and collapse of the housing market made this resolution impossible with the existing resources. Former Mayor Ed Murray in 2014 established a housing affordability task force to begin to address the issue. Mayor Jenny Durkan in 2017 abandoned it, forming a regional task force instead.

The lesson that Seattle learned foremost was that homelessness is not a Seattle-issue; it is a national endemic which is exacerbated by the expensive West Coast housing market. Unhoused communities and the housing insecure can be found along the highway corridors in King County, the city parks and streets, in the state campgrounds, and in shelters and affordable housing incentivized or paid for by public money. Their issues range from the rent burdened needing some assistance to the chronically unhoused, which usually require additional resources such as mental healthcare.

Cities on their own cannot handle these tasks. Seattle, a city with more resources than most of King County municipalities, could not build the comprehensive package required to handle the wide range of programs needed to eradicate homelessness. Cities that attempt to fund their own program will ignore the higher needs communities, as they are now because they are perceived as a burden. See how Renton responded to the Red Lion this year.

The cities which take local control will likely leave the chronically unhoused and more disadvantaged to suffer from a quilted housing program with many gaps and too few overlaps. By taking control over the housing resources they will be given the power to exclude, and it will come at the expense of the county being able to successfully solve housing and affordability.

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