Hotels

King County quickly bought 7 homeless hotels, but will that be enough?

When the last guests left the Aurora Avenue Holiday Inn and Suites on July 6, staff called those who booked to let them know they were being reimbursed for their stay, according to a county spokesperson.

The hotel was closed. Like six others in the county, it is on the verge of being transformed into homeless housing.

The county got the keys the next day and announced the purchase at a press conference the next day. They had moved so fast that the refrigerators were always stocked with yogurt, muffins, sausage and cookies for continental breakfasts.

The Seattle Times Homeless Project is funded by BECU, the Bernier McCaw Foundation, the Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, the Schultz Family Foundation, the Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over the content of Project Homeless.

In just a few months, using bond money from a new sales tax, King County bought five hotels for more than $ 102 million and made deals to buy two more plus an apartment building. for probably almost $ 100 million more. Several sold for several million more than their 2020 appraised value, according to King County real estate records.

With more than 800 rooms in total, that’s more supportive housing for the homeless than it built in 2019 and 2020 combined, according to data from the state’s Department of Commerce, and more than double of what’s been built in the rest of the state – and that’s a lot cheaper than building new homes, according to the county.



There’s more to come, but while the increased capacity will dramatically reduce the number of tents in county parks and green spaces, it likely won’t be enough.

During the pandemic, a fairly broad consensus developed among King County leaders that if the Seattle area is to deal with its homelessness crisis, leaders will need to build homes for people living in the city. outside with severe mental illness or substance use disorders before these people can get the help they need from a state-based behavioral health system that is exceptionally difficult to navigate from the streets.

But building housing for the homeless is expensive and time consuming. So after the coronavirus pandemic struck, causing hotels to be emptied and a new influx of relief money from the federal government, local governments were presented with a new opportunity: buy empty hotels and fill them with empty ones. shelter.

“Considering the time it takes to build homes, if you can buy 800 units at the stroke of a pen, that’s huge,” said Gregg Colburn, University of Washington real estate professor and author. from the forthcoming book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem.” “Yes [King County Executive] Dow [Constantine] can keep gobbling up hotels and doing it politically, go ahead. “

Constantine has formed a tough political alliance with suburban cities – which are often skeptical of focusing so much on housing to end homelessness – to make the buying frenzy happen.

Half of the buildings purchased so far are outside Seattle, in Auburn, Renton, Redmond and Federal Way. Still, local mayors, some of whom have passed laws in recent months to restrict camping or the construction of shelters, have stood side-by-side with county leaders to celebrate the openings.

“We hold to account everyone involved in this process, from government to funders, service providers and those who receive services,” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said at the opening. of a hotel last week.

Calling it “compassionate responsibility,” Backus also backed a law passed in April that changed the consequences of camping on public property in Auburn from a civil offense to a criminal sanction. Homeless advocates have decried the movement as a step backwards and an effort to get the homeless out of town instead of trying to help them.

Last fall, eight cities, including Bellevue and Federal Way, chose to hijack control of the county’s sales tax money, removing millions from the plan and reducing by 400 the estimated number of coins the tax could create.

In Federal Way last week, the rejection of Constantine’s plan remained. At the first town hall since the onset of the coronavirus, many residents expressed anger at the increase in homelessness in the city and some called on city leaders to prevent the former Extended Stay America from opening. as homeless housing, the Federal Way Mirror reported.

But Constantine, who is running for reelection, intends to continue buying hotels and buildings next year to bring the total to 1,600 rooms across the county.

Constantine’s opponent, Democratic State Senator Joe Nguyen, said authorities should seek out hotels as one of many options, such as financing small houses, reallocation of open land in King County and the rental of private spaces.

“Just buying hotels will not solve roaming,” Nguyen said in a statement.

Seattle city leaders will be looking for their own buildings with nearly $ 100 million in public and local funds.

However, all of this is unlikely to be enough. A 2020 count of homeless people across the county estimated that on a given January night there were more than 3,300 people living outside with significant barriers to obtaining and staying in housing, including a severe mental illness and addiction.

It’s just for one night. A comprehensive report released last year, which included contributions from the public sector, homeless people and consultants from McKinsey & Co. estimated that the region needs to build 6,500 supportive homes for chronically homeless people, and an additional 4,000 for people who enter prison, institutions and other housing.

Washington is also behind Oregon and California. Even before King County announced its first hotel purchase, California had purchased nearly 6,000 units in 120 buildings across the state at a cost of nearly $ 800 million.

Building or buying enough housing for the region’s hardest to house would likely require a billion-dollar regional housing bond as Los Angeles and metropolitan Portland have been adopted in recent years, some experts have said, homeless advocates and even Seattle mayoral candidates.

Constantine said last week when opening a hotel in Auburn that he would like to see a regional source of money for housing, but he’s tired of using sales and property taxes to make it happen. . He also pointed out that owning property is not always a sign of wealth.

“So we try to be careful with that,” Constantine said.


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