New audit highlights the shortcomings of King County’s regional homelessness plan

The stats don’t lie—the system isn’t working.

Last week, before King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan moved to reorganize the regional response to the homelessness crisis, a government audit illustrated why this was needed.

A new King County Auditor’s Office report, released on May 1, makes three main points: the segmented efforts by local governments to address homelessness prevent a coordinated region-wide response, the scarcity of affordable units severely lengthen wait times for those eligible for housing, and the tight private rental market limits the number of people who can be housed with temporary rent subsidies.

The audit concurs with the concerns of All Home members that believe their non-existent power over local governments hinders their ability to enact their strategic vision for addressing homelessness.

“Having many large organizations working independently … reduces the ability of the region to respond collectively to community needs, and creates roadblocks to change,” the audit reads. “All Home is a coordinating body meant to pull together local funders into a homeless response system, but it lacks the authority to do it.”

Some All Home members have suggested reconstituting the organization as a joint-Seattle/King County agency—similar to the Portland/Multnomah County Joint Office of Homelessness Services—to centralize the regional response and streamline the contracting process for non-profit service providers.

Additionally, the audit found that wait times for affordable housing units exceed federally mandated requirements—primarily due to a general lack of affordable housing in the region and low vacancy rates. While federal requirements stipulate that individuals eligible for homeless housing should wait no more than 60 days, average waits were twice as long at the end of 2017. On average, young adults waited four months while single adults and families waited five months.

The audit paints a grim picture of the housing backlog. If current affordable housing stock and vacancy rates stayed the same and no one else joined the cue for housing, it would take seven years to secure units for everyone on the list. “In the entire county, only about 1,120 homeless housing units become vacant each year. Meanwhile, by the end of September 2017, there were 8,299 households awaiting housing referral,” it reads.

The audit also found racial inequities in the affordable housing referral process. Per the report, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Latinos—demographics which are disproportionately represented in the regional homeless population—are less likely to be assessed by service providers for affordable housing. Between July 2016 and September 2017, 57 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives waited more than 90 days from being assessed to getting housed, compared with 39 among all other racial groups combined.

Finally, the report takes aim at the effectiveness of rapid rehousing, a policy strategy favorite of All Home and the governments of King County and Seattle in which homeless people’s move-in costs and rent at private sector rental housing are temporarily subsidized to get them housed. The audit states that, while local governments have invested more resources in rapid rehousing, that fewer than half of the individuals enrolled in the program moved into housing between January 2015 and August 2018.

The “high-rent, low-vacancy [private] rental market” is largely to blame for this underperformance, the report argues. “Rapid rehousing relies on market-rate housing that clients can feasibly pay for. It assumes that with short-term rental assistance, a client will be able to remain housed without rent assistance. However, very little housing is available in King County at rents that are feasible for rapid rehousing households.”

This criticism has long been shared by members of the homeless advocacy community, who argue that unless the regional housing market cools off substantially, rapid-rehousing will remain ineffective.

The audit was paired with a response from Constantine. In his letter, he touted the limited successes of the current system while acknowledging the veracity of the audit’s criticisms and promised collaboration between the county, All Home, and other stakeholders on addressing the numerous issues.

jkelety@soundpublishing.com

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