Homelessness and Police Accountability
American Indian and Alaska Native people make up just 1% of the total population of King County, yet they represent 10% of the county’s total homeless population—a disparity that service funders for the homeless have often ignored in deciding which groups are first in line for housing and supportive services. As executive director of the nonprofit Chief Seattle Club since 2013, Colleen Echohawk—an enrolled member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation—has worked tirelessly to right that imbalance by securing funds for programs that address the unique needs and traumas experienced by Native American and Alaska Native people living on Seattle’s streets.
Over the past two years, the city has dramatically increased funding for the group’s homelessness prevention and housing programs, which will soon include a new headquarters in Pioneer Square. That space will provide 80 new units of affordable housing for chronically homeless residents, a clinic operated in partnership with the Seattle Indian Health Board and a dedicated space for Native American art.
Echohawk, a longtime advocate for police accountability, also sits on the Community Police Commission and oversaw the search that led to the selection of Seattle’s first African American police chief, Carmen Best.
In Seattle’s ongoing civic war over density versus “traditional neighborhood character,” backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments (accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, in city parlance) might seem like an unlikely battleground. The small, secondary units can provide extra income for homeowners or an extra living space for family members or guests. But some opposed legislation making it easier for homeowners to build these units, arguing that the bill would allow developers to blanket Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods with luxury apartments. Matt Hutchins used his expertise as an architect who actually builds backyard cottages to make the case that housing diversity does not mean development run wild. A member of More Options for Accessory Residences (MOAR), Hutchins was a constant presence during the ADU debate, arguing forcefully and effectively that Seattle’s neighborhoods should be places for everyone, including people who don’t make six-figure incomes.
Though she’s in just her second term of office, state Representative Nicole Macri, who is also deputy director for strategy at Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center, has already made a huge impact on housing policy. Thus far, she has sponsored two pieces of landmark legislation that will fund affordable new housing and help people keep the housing they have.
The first new law provides more funding for local housing projects by making a portion of the state sales tax available to cities to spend on affordable housing. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has already announced plans to use this revenue to finance $50 million in new housing for people who are homeless.
The second law provides sweeping new protections for tenants who are at risk of eviction, giving them more time to pay overdue rent before their landlord can take them to court. The law also makes it easier for tenants to avoid eviction even after their case has gone to court.
Up next: a statewide just-cause eviction law ensuring that landlords can’t kick tenants out for no reason; limits on year-over-year rent increases; and funding to preserve existing state-funded affordable units.
For more than 25 years, Paul Lambros, the head of Plymouth Housing, has led a quiet revolution in how Seattle approaches one of its thorniest problems: housing chronically homeless people who have struggled in traditional housing programs because of addiction, criminal records or disabilities. Plymouth’s housing programs are based on the simple but radical notion that housing is a fundamental human right, and that people can’t improve their lives until that fundamental need is met. The programs provide medical care, housing and case management to Plymouth’s 1,000 residents with no strings attached—no drug tests, work requirements or mandatory check-ins, just housing and whatever support residents need to lead healthier, more stable lives.
The long-term success rate of this “housing first” approach is over 90%, but policymakers have another reason to support it: Housing people, it turns out, is much cheaper than spending millions of public dollars on emergency rooms, short-term shelter and incarceration. In June, Plymouth announced a $75 million initiative to build 800 new units of low-barrier, permanent supportive housing across eight buildings in Seattle—enough to house more than a third of the 2,200 chronically homeless people currently living in King County.