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King County to buy hotels to permanently house 1,600 people

King County will buy a hotel that has been housing people who are homeless in Seattle for roughly a year as well as four or five other hotels in the coming weeks as part of an effort to house 1,600 people in hotels by the end of 2022.

County Executive Dow Constantine has been promising such a purchase since 2020, when he asked the Metropolitan King County Council to pass a sales tax to pay for the move, The Seattle Times reported.

It’s a response in part to the growing number of tents Seattle has seen emerge since the pandemic began, and in part a response to homeless advocates asking elected leaders to end the old form of overnight homeless shelter.

“We’ve got to get to the point where we can say to the next person who’s showing up with their tent, ‘I have a better alternative for you. It’s not a place with a mat on the floor where you’re going to get kicked out in the morning,’ ” Constantine told the newspaper before his public announcement during Tuesday’s state of the county address.

The county has been pulling from its reserves to keep hotel shelters open since the pandemic began, leaving residents and homelessness nonprofit leaders worried that people staying in them could be evicted suddenly. Now, the 80 or so people already staying at the Inn at Queen Anne won’t necessarily have to find another place to stay when the pandemic ends because the county will buy the hotel for $16.5 million.

The residents, who are over age 55, initially came to the inn from the St. Martin de Porres shelter near downtown, where they slept on mats 6 inches apart. They won’t be required to leave, according to Dan Wise, deputy director of nonprofit shelter operator Catholic Community Services, and will have access to caseworkers and medical, behavioral health and housing resources.

Constantine hopes the purchases made this spring will house between 500 and 600 people this summer, although the county won’t yet announce the other locations, some of which are outside Seattle.

Constantine said the county has welcomed aid from the Washington state government, which provided millions to counties for shelter. Constantine and the county council imposed a 0.1% county sales tax with a $400 million bonding package to pay for these hotels.

States like Oregon and California have been buying dozens of hotels since last year, investing hundreds of millions of dollars.

A few other hotel shelters that were set up quickly last year around Seattle have generated outcry in the surrounding communities.

“We will work with the cities, city governments and agree on the hotel or hotels we will pursue,” Constantine said. “It’s different than the hotels during the COVID crisis — those were emergency response and emergency declaration to a global pandemic.”

When asked for comment on the hotel purchase, Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, said 60% of homeless people receiving city-funded services became homeless outside of the city.

“More housing is needed in Seattle, but Seattle alone can’t solve the homelessness crisis for all the cities in King County,” Hightower wrote.