Last week, Council approved the City of Seattle’s 2018 budget. This year’s budget process was memorable for the urgent emphasis on our homelessness crisis, rigorous debate, and the bold actions taken by Council to fund solutions. In addition, as Chair of the Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee, I am proud to have sponsored a number of budget actions to support better transportation options and infrastructure in our growing City.
Budget Investments in Homelessness Response
The Council passed a number of items that ensured that essential services already in place will not be rolled back, such as funding for emergency shelter serving over 230 survivors of domestic and sexual violence, maintaining existing permanent supportive housing services, ensuring two transitional housing programs for homeless foster youth do not close, sustaining support for a homeless child care program, and continued funding for homeless youth employment programs. In addition, I co-sponsored the following budget proposals that add to our homelessness response:
- Funding for expansion of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) to our North Precinct
- Funding for the creation of a safe consumption site to ensure people have a safe place consume and receive treatment advice from trained nurses
- Funding for a new homeless youth opportunity center in Capitol Hill
- Support for tenant outreach and support services
- Funding for two additional authorized encampments to provide people safe temporary places to be
Update on the HOMES Tax Proposal
Despite our 2018 investments, I believe we need to invest at a much larger scale to make a dent in the homelessness crisis we are facing. The problems around housing and homelessness have continued to grow at a pace faster than we can address due to rising rents, the opioid crisis, an underfunded state mental health system and defunding from the federal government.
Much of the success we’ve seen in transitioning people into housing has been due to additional low-barrier shelter options and permanent housing. During this year’s budget, now-former Councilmember Kirsten Harris-Talley and I sponsored a proposal to create more immediate shelter spaces, as well as long-term affordable housing. We called it the HOMES proposal – Housing, Outreach, and Mass-Entry Shelter. The HOMES proposal would have businesses making more than $5 million in revenue a year pay 5 cents an hour per employee ($100/year for a full-time employee), exempting the smallest 90% of businesses in Seattle, and generating about $24 million in revenue annually. Through the City’s ability to bond against this new revenue in the future, starting in 2018 we could have begun to invest nearly $50 million each year in affordable housing, nearly doubling our Housing Levy.
Instead of passing that ongoing revenue source, last week the Council passed Resolution 31782. This resolution requires the Council to assemble a task force that will develop recommendations for a dedicated progressive revenue source to support people experiencing or at high-risk for homelessness and to raise no less than $25 million a year. If you’d like to participate in this Progressive Revenue Task Force on Housing and Homelessness, you can apply HERE by Monday, December 4th. This task force will deliver recommendations by February 26, 2018, and the Council intends to take legislative action by March 26, 2018. While it is a little delayed, this commitment to pursue progressive revenue options is a huge win for those who have been waiting for something big and bold to address the city’s civil emergency on homelessness.
Encampment Removals Process
How we get people who are living outdoor into more stable living situations continues to be a struggle. The city’s Navigation Team (a combination of police officers and outreach workers) has had some success in getting more people into shelter in the past year. This is in part because we have put more resources into outreach and in part because we had a significant increase in good shelter options for people (Georgetown tiny-house village, Navigation Center and Compass First Hill shelters, and two new sanctioned tent encampments all opened up this year). It is critical that as we move people experiencing homelessness we give them good shelter options to choose from.
To that end, in this budget cycle, we increased requirements about notice and reporting so that the council and the public has more clarity on when and where sweeps are happening and who is ending up in shelter and who simply moves to the next unsanctioned encampment. We are also requiring recommendations on how to improve the outcomes in this system.
This system will continue to be a struggle until we get significantly more affordable housing options, continue to add good shelter options, and reduce the number of people entering homelessness.
2018 Investments in Reducing Congestion
I’m proud to support the Seattle Department of Transportation’s continued focus on creating a City where everyone can safely get around by foot, transit, or bike, when possible. These investments are critical to reducing congestion and creating a livable and sustainable city. A couple budget items I sponsored to further these goals include:
- Funding for outreach and assistance to businesses to establish Pre-Tax Commuter Benefit programs.
- The IRS allows employers to offer a tax-free transit subsidy up to $255 per employee per month for buses, light rail, ferry, water taxi, and vanpool. However, many businesses do not take advantage of this program due to perceived complexities in establishing and administering this program. Offering transit passes allows employers to save up to 9% on that spending in payroll taxes, and employees save between 25% and 40% on their commute expenses. These benefits also encourage transit use, which helps reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. We hope that with additional outreach and assistance, we can change that perception and get more people commuting by transit to work.
- Funding to examine issues related to diversion and congestion on local streets due to tolling on SR-99.
- WSDOT is bringing tolling to Seattle, with the opening of the new State Route 99 tunnel through downtown. That means that we are likely to experience diversion on our streets by people looking to avoid tolls. Early models indicate that this diversion could have a significant negative impact on congestion on city streets and be specifically detrimental to transit and freight travel times. The study would focus on the broader equity implications of congestion pricing in Seattle (particularly who is driving at what times) and explore options to minimize diversion so that transit service continues to operate reliably.
Thanks to all who engaged with our office over the last couple months. If you have further questions or comments about the budget, please don’t hesitate to reach out to my office at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 206-684-8800.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien