Homeless response, housing density take center stage in state Legislature

Feb 4, 2022, 5:03 AM | Updated: 8:58 am


Tiny homes built in the Whitter Heights Tiny Home Village in Seattle (Credit Seattle City Council via Flickr)

(Credit Seattle City Council via Flickr)

With a number of competing housing proposals in front of the Legislature, Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell have singled out a particular Senate bill to address the state’s homelessness problem.

Senate Bill 5662, written at the request of the governor, is on its way to a floor vote. The bill would establish a new office within the Department of Social and Human Health Services, titled the Office of Intergovernmental Coordination on Public Right-of-Way Homeless Encampments. This new office would assist states and counties with removing homeless encampments, with specific emphasis on those along highways.

The legislation places a requirement on the Department of Commerce, in charge of using capital under the Housing Trust Fund to build affordable housing, to coordinate with the new office to distribute grant money with the intention to “meet the individual needs of encamped persons and facilitate their transition to affordable housing.”

That bill was the subject of a nearly hour-long press conference Thursday, in which a number of state and city officials voiced their approval of the legislation.

In his speech, Gov. Inslee emphasized the need to disperse his called-for $494 million in capital investments in a “meaningful, coordinated” manner, hence the creation of the new office. He clarified that the legislation will neither dictate how local governments move encampments near right-of-ways nor authorize “sweeps” when there is not adequate, local, affordable housing at hand.

“This legislation will help local jurisdictions with prioritizing some of these units that will be brought online to help people move who are, today, camped on our right-of-ways toward permanent housing,” Gov. Inslee said Thursday.

As the bill was passed out of committee, it became more focused on, specifically, homeless encampments underneath highways and bridges. That was the focal point of Mayor Harrell’s contextualization for how the theoretical new office would assist the city of Seattle in its homelessness outreach.

“For those experiencing homelessness, and for the drivers on our highways, for those that appreciate the beauty that a city like Seattle and a state like Washington have become known for nationally, I think this legislation actually will help us coordinate a response between the city of Seattle and the state of Washington,” Harrell said.

“These are real dollars, north of $800 million, for example, in this kind of investment,” he continued. “This is the level of resources that we believe are needed when you have north of $300 million in housing acquisition, $100 million or so for enhanced shelter options, $50 million for behavioral support services and for right-of-way outreach and site remediation.”

SB 5662 is one of several legislative attempts to addressing housing and affordability in Washington.

Single-family housing along mass transit corridors is in the crosshairs as the Legislature considers placing requirements on cities with populations above 20,000 to allow for rezoning to facilitate higher population density.

That reform, House Bill 1782, passed out of committee hearings Tuesday. While having bipartisan support in Olympia, city officials with Auburn, Tacoma, Spokane, and Federal Way have testified in opposition to the bill, broadly criticizing statewide zoning reform that isn’t tailored to specific municipalities. Mayor Harrell’s support or opposition has been an outstanding question.

Bill to rework Washington’s single-family zoning advances ahead of deadline

“To say I’m against the bill, that’s an inaccuracy. I’ve expressed … some concerns to make sure that, at least in Seattle, we have a level of community input that we want, that we have a unique situation here in many respects,” Harrell said.

“The principles of increasing density, … to achieve the right level of density and affordability — we are we’re all in on those approaches,” he continued. “We also know that we have constituents that also sometimes want to have … a granular approach. They certainly want their due process.”

The soft deadline to pass bills out of committee was Thursday, Feb. 3.

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Homeless response, housing density take center stage in state Legislature