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Regional homelessness authority clears key vote, but conflicts remain

Tents under an overpass in Seattle
Parker Miles Blohm

A plan to create a new homelessness authority serving Seattle and King County cleared a key vote Thursday. But tensions over how the new authority will be governed could delay the creation of the agency into the new year.

Seattle and King County leaders have been working for years to combine their efforts to address the homelessness crisis. Earlier this fall, Mayor Jenny Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine announced a plan to create a new regional authority overseeing shelters and services, such as case management and treatment for addiction and mental health issues.

The county's Regional Policy Committee unanimously approved an amended version of the plan Thursday. The committee is made up of members of the King County Council, Seattle City Council and elected officials from the county's suburbs.

"This process is now taking a big step forward," said County Council member Pete von Reichbauer, who also serves as the committee chair. "But it has a longer process."

The proposal needs to be approved separately by the King County and Seattle City councils. But Seattle leaders already are indicating they might ask for further changes, which could delay the process.

"Our council will have a lot of questions, concerns and amendments, and I think we should be prepared for that," Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez told her fellow committee members.

The biggest sticking point is the governance of the new authority.

The plan approved Thursday creates an implementation board tasked with drafting budgets and setting policy.  That board would be made up of experts and those who have experienced homelessness. The implementation board would answer to a governing committee made up of elected officials and people with "lived experience." The committee would approve budgets, hire executives and also have a say in guiding policy.

This structure differs from the original plan. It gives elected officials on the governing committee more authority. It also increases influence from suburban cities.

Critics of this change, particularly homeless advocates, say giving the governing committee more power takes focus away from experts and people who have experienced homelessness. That shift could make this new authority look more like just another layer of bureaucracy.

There also are tensions between Seattle and smaller King County cities. Suburban officials want to have a say in any regional policy that could affect them. Similarly, Seattle leaders are wary of suburbs having too much influence.

Money is another a factor. Seattle is putting up about $75 million to create this new agency. King County is contributing nearly $57 million. But smaller cities are not yet directly putting their own funds into the authority.

County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles said it became clear over the past few months that there was not adequate agreement among the different parties on the original legislation.

"When you deal with legislation, you have to look at what is possible," Kohl-Welles said. "What was transmitted to us was not going to go through, as much as many of would have liked."

Despite disagreements, leaders are pushing to pass the requisite legislation before the end of the year. Delaying the process means it will take longer to form the new agency, creating uncertainty for human service workers.

If the Seattle City Council does propose amendments, they would have to go back to the Regional Policy Committee.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.