In early 2020, as part of COVID-19 measures, congregate shelters for unhoused communities were “de-intensified”. Shelters were spread throughout the county in hotels. In response to this, some local governments attempted to prevent emergency shelters from returning, but a bill by the Washington Legislature may put an end to those attempts.
Normally purposed for bunk or congregate settings, shelters were a potential vector of pathogens as they did not allow for large spacing and ventilation between all the residents. These residents were moved into hotels across the county, including the Red Lion in Renton. The impact on these individuals transitioning from congregate shelters to hotels was phenomenal, with studies remarking improved mental and physical well-being and more positive outcomes.
The facility in Renton caught attention early on with Mayor Armondo Pavone and then-Council President Ruth Pérez wrote an op-ed demanding a timetable for its removal in June. Residents who opposed this remarked that the global health crisis has no timeline. By July, the City had issued “code violations” against the hotel. Finally, in November, the city prepared to use zoning laws to evict the shelter, which they passed 5-2 on December 14th.
NIMBY activists, and even some local businesses, took initiative to push against the shelter. Some scapegoated the facility as a focal point of substance abuse and crime, but these have grown nationally largely as a result of the economic fallout caused by the pandemic. Housing advocates questioned why an emergency ordinance would be used to effectively ban shelters during a confluence of state of emergencies on the housing crisis and global health crisis. Residents also pointed to the history of purposing zoning laws against marginalized communities. Investors and leaders on housing commented during the council meetings that the ordinance would likely be fought in courts.
Under normal circumstances, the ordinance passed by the city would have started to evict the Red Lion residents beginning this May, but the Washington Legislature has intervened. HB 1220 now sits at Governor Inslee’s desk, which was sponsored by the 11th Legislative District’s own Representative Hackney. The bill would, in a way, ban cities from using planning and zoning laws to remove emergency shelters, like the City of Renton, and Bellevue, attempted to.