By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
The expanded homeless shelter near the Chinatown-International District (CID) has not been through a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review, making it illegal, according to three people with knowledge of the site and the required process. SEPA mandates an evaluation of community impacts, necessary mitigations, and provides opportunities for the public to potentially overturn the project.
Two of the people spoke to the Northwest Asian Weekly on the condition of anonymity to protect themselves from retaliation as whistleblowers. The third is a member of the CID Public Safety Council.
According to all three, although the site is primarily a county project, it receives funding from the City of Seattle for operations while the City’s Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) has oversight over its permitting, meaning that there are countless ways the City could stop it from opening.
In an email, the director of media relations and permit coordination for the SDCI, Bryan Stevens, confirmed that the City had oversight over the site.
“Since this property is within the Seattle city limits, any new proposal will be subject to Seattle’s local regulations and permitting requirements,” he wrote.
Stevens also acknowledged that a SEPA review had not been completed.
“The County is lead on SEPA review for this project, which we understand to be in process,” he added.
Such conditions leave power in the hands of the City.
“Mayor [Bruce] Harrell and the City Council have the power to stop this,” said one of the people with knowledge of the process.
According to public records, the City is planning to spend more than $12 million in its 2022–2023 budget to support the new shelter, which is at 1000–1050 Sixth Avenue South, 831 Seattle Boulevard, and 831 Airport Way South.
A stopgap measure
The site was never meant to be more than a temporary measure to respond to the pandemic. Soon after the COVID-19 outbreak reached Seattle, authorities were struggling to find sites for mass quarantining. The first site was in North Bend, followed by one in Shoreline. A site on the Eastside and the current site of the proposed expanded shelter followed, bringing the total to four.
But when the pandemic largely ended, King County asked the City if it could station a shelter there on a trial basis.
“It was always intended to be temporary; anything beyond that would have required more public process,” said one of the persons who has knowledge of the proceedings.
Precedents of failure and struggle
The history of the county’s failed and onerous attempts to position shelters in suburbs of Seattle are an indication of how slipshod and illegitimate are its current efforts to expand and make permanent the temporary shelter near the CID, according to the two persons with knowledge of the site and the process.
In Bellevue, it took almost a decade to process the siting of a men’s shelter. It also required the rewriting of the city’s code.
During the first segment of the pandemic, congregate homeless shelters constricted operations and the county moved the entire population of the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) shelter to the Renton Red Lion hotel, in downtown Renton.
Crime skyrocketed. One local man came home to find one of the new Red Lion tenants in his house apparently carrying off his 2-year-old daughter. There were concerns about increased transmission of COVID-19 since many of the new dwellers in the Red Lion were observed by community members not to take any precautions.
The Renton City Council passed an ordinance noting that the County’s decision to move the occupants of the downtown shelter into the Red Lion was unauthorized and illegal, according to Renton’s zoning. The council also noted that Renton was a highly diverse community, representing multiple communities of color.
“This experience in Renton is an indication how you can’t just slap down a new shelter without any public process,” said one of the people with extensive knowledge of the process.
A state of emergency ended
The King County Regional Homeless Authority has described the new homeless hub as an “expanded” shelter, indicating that roughly 150 new beds will be added to the existing site and also spaces for RVs and mini dwellings. But, as with the placement of a shelter in Renton, the original site was undertaken while the State, County, and City of Seattle were acting under emergency COVID decrees.
Gov. Jay Inslee lifted the state of emergency last month. And the City and County have let their emergency decrees lapse.
Stevens said the City of Seattle has “not yet rescinded the order.”
Now, however, the County has declared the expansion of the shelter is not COVID-related.
“So under what authority is it being done?” asked one of the sources.
Gary Lee, a member of the CID Public Safety Council, said some of the proposed expansion may not be congruent with the City’s municipal code.
The future expansion, with some of the proposed uses, appears to be in violation because the City has stated that zoning code amendments are required before proceeding with them, he said.
The SDCI acknowledged zoning would need to be changed.
“This property is in an industrial commercial zone. After the SEPA process is complete, the City Council would need to pass a land use code amendment to permit expanded uses,” said Stevens.
However, in response to another question, he clarified that zoning might allow short-term encampments.
“There are several different uses that could describe the services associated with homeless shelters or transitional support. Community centers and family support centers are some of those uses, but other categories of use may also apply,” he said. “Separately, transitional encampments may be allowed in this zone and other zones in Seattle, per section SMC 23.42.054 or 23.42.056.”
The second person with knowledge of the process and the site said that while the shelter has always been a County project, the City now has multiple ways of halting it.
The Seattle City Council must approve funding. The SDCI must approve permits and zoning. The mayor has a vote on the regional homeless authority.
“Just because it’s County dollars doesn’t mean this expanded use doesn’t have to meet current City zoning,” said one of the people with knowledge of the process.
Moreover, both persons said, the failure to conduct the required SEPA process leaves the County open to a lawsuit.
Both the Seattle City Council and the King County Council are reviewing and debating the budgets that were submitted, respectively, to them by the county executive and the mayor.
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Betty Lau says
It’s pretty clear from the map provided by King County, where every dot represents a shelter, that the CID has more than its fair share, especially since county purchased hotels are going unfilled. Also not the name of the district is wrong. The correct name that should be on the map is Chinatown International District, as per City Ordinance 119207
Betty Lau says
We should all be paying attention to SMC 23.42 and sub sections. There seems to be a few violations already: limit 100 per shelter (compare current 269), no more than 3 encampments (if the Sobering Center and RV living are encampments, then Megaplex is 2 over the limit of 3, a shelter may not be built within one straight line mile of another (CID has one within and is ringed by 20+ more there are plenty within one mile and the 3 planned encampments in Megaplex are definitely within one mile of each other; permitting is for one year with one year renewable, then private property must be vacated before encampment can be brought back so why a five year lease? Was the lease put out to bid? Were the pallet modules put out to bid? How is pallet living superior to tiny homes since they cost almost double?