Inslee wants Legislature to focus on housing lower-income Washingtonians

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday that he wants the state to focus on policies that will add new housing units in the upcoming legislative session.

Last year, Washington state poured hundreds of millions of dollars into homelessness and housing, largely due to a one-time infusion of federal pandemic relief funding. Much of the state’s focus was on increasing temporary shelter units and getting people living outdoors off state rights of way, such as near highways.

This year, Inslee said he wants to see policies that prevent people at lower-income levels from being priced out of available housing and becoming homeless.

“Fundamentally we need more housing in the state of Washington,” Inslee said at a news conference inside a Seattle hotel converted into a homeless shelter partly through state funds.

Inslee said the state is already addressing homelessness in multiple ways, adding mental health treatment capacity, substance use disorder treatment programs and shelter units. But most importantly, he said, 76,000 housing units need to be added across the state at all income levels to meet the current housing demand.

He said changing zoning laws or tax incentives for home sales could help fill that gap.

He floated requiring a certain percentage of housing units near transit stations to be low-income; streamlining the permitting process to make it easier and faster to develop new housing, which he said could ultimately lower housing costs; and a tax exemption for people selling their homes to first-time homebuyers.

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the state should prioritize increasing housing at the lowest income level rather than pursue policies that affect housing prices higher up the income ladder.

Last spring, the governor signed a supplemental budget that included more than $800 million to address homelessness. Over two-thirds of that money came from one-time federal pandemic relief funding that, Inslee said, the state might not be able to match, although he will seek to increase the amount of homelessness spending coming out of the state’s budget.

The state is still in the process of spending some of last year’s funds. More than $330 million was allocated to acquire existing property and buildings. It was estimated this could purchase 2,460 units of housing or shelter. Currently, the state says 830, or about a third, of those units have been acquired and 1,000 more units are on the way in the next six months. More than a third of the acquired units are in King County.

Adding homeless shelter capacity used to take years, said state Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, but with the state’s push to buy turnkey buildings like hotels and convert them into shelters, she says, “it is taking weeks, and that is making all the difference.”

Inslee said the state has faced challenges siting new shelter units from residents who oppose new homeless services being placed in their communities. But he said there are many success stories where community members eventually come to embrace the facilities.

King County and Seattle have also struggled to open new shelters because of a shortage of people who want to work the usually low-paying, often traumatic jobs.

The governor also touted the state’s Right of Ways Initiative, an effort to move people living near highways, bridges and railroads.

The approach in most of these encampment removals has been similar to the one used at Seattle’s Woodland Park, where outreach workers spend weeks connecting with the people living there and connect them to hotel or tiny home shelters they are more likely to accept.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has been involved with four of these encampment removals, and said 113 out of 116 people living at the encampments moved inside, mostly into temporary shelter with a handful into permanent housing. In these cases, the authority is calling them “encampment resolutions” rather than “removals” or “sweeps.”

“When we say that we have resolved an encampment, what that means is that we are able to say everyone came inside,” said authority CEO Marc Dones who commended the teamwork between the state, the authority and other partners.