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Group claims language in Seattle charter amendment on homelessness is misleading

The use of tiny homes is part of the debate over the language of a charter amendment that addresses homelessness in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press file
The use of tiny house villages is part of the debate over the language of a charter amendment that addresses homelessness in Seattle.

A coalition of nonprofits filed a petition asserting that the language Seattle voters could see about a new approach to the city’s homelessness crisis fails to accurately describe the content of the legislation. A court will now have to decide if that’s the case — and the determination cannot be appealed.

Real Change, the Transit Riders Union, Nickelsville and Be:Seattle are challenging the ballot title on the grounds that it would mislead voters. According to the petition, the language is unclear in several regards -- a key one being that it promises the city will provide “2,000 housing units within one year.” One thousand of those units would be available in the first six months, according to the amendment.

The ballot language cited in the petition says that the amendment “concerns actions to address homelessness and keep areas clear of encampments.” It also talks about the 2,000 housing units within a year, waiver of land-use regulations to create housing units, funding of behavioral health and addiction treatment and dedicating 12 percent of general fund revenues to homelessness and human services. It highlights a diversion program for people who break laws because of poverty and behavioral health. 

The actual charter amendment allows for units to include emergency housing, such as tiny house villages. That’s different than new housing units, said Knoll Lowney, the attorney who helped file the case.

“We’ve mentioned a number of mistakes, but one of the main ones is that the ballot title says that 2,000 units of housing created in a year, and that’s very misleading because there’s no way real housing units can be developed and built that quickly,” Lowney said.

The ballot language has to fit in 75 words and is written by the City Attorney’s Office (CAO). The office will be grateful for the Superior Court’s guidance for the ballot language, said spokesperson Dan Nolte.

“Condensing a 1,500-word ballot proposal regarding homelessness into a 75-word summary that all people find agreeable is a challenge, to be sure,” Nolte wrote in an email.

Compassion Seattle, the organization that came forward with the charter amendment, said it was “disappointed” with the challenge, which will delay signature collection meant to begin on Saturday, May 8.

“Time is precious when collecting more than 33,000 valid signatures, and this is clearly an attempt to make our job harder,” the group said in a statement.

If approved by Seattle voters, the initiative would amend one of the bedrock documents of the city to require the new housing and emergency shelter units, mental health services for people who ask for it and outreach teams to help connect people experiencing homelessness to services.

The charter amendment also requires the city to remove people from parks and other public spaces “as emergency and permanent housing becomes available.” Seattle has scaled back sweeps of homeless encampments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance in 2020 saying that municipalities should avoid sweeping encampments during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure people stay in contact with service providers and avoid spreading the disease.

Proponents of the legislation say that it will not require new resources to fulfill the promises of new housing or emergency shelter and mental health services. 

A 2018 report from McKinsey & Company, a consultancy, suggested that the Puget Sound region would have to spend more than $400 million a year to create the amount of housing necessary to end the homelessness crisis. That figure doesn’t account for mental health services. 

According to theBureau of Health Workforce, Washington only has enough psychiatrists to meet 12.2 percent of the need in the state.