King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn is Shift’s Newsmaker Interview. Last week the councilmember wrote a much-discussed Seattle Times op-ed in which he asserted that King County should stop funding the efforts of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) – the three-year old agency formed by the City of Seattle and King County, and financially supported by many government entities.
In his interview, Councilmember Dunn outlined his reasons for why King County taxpayers should stop funding the efforts of KCRHA and why this decision needs to be made now. He summarized why the liberal’s expensive “Housing First” policies have failed and why taxpayers are seeing poor results from KCRHA’s growing bureaucracy. While many moderates are now expressing doubts about Housing First, the councilmember expressed his disappointment over the liberal establishment’s failure to see its obvious flaws. He explained his thoughts on what should replace KCRHA and why many suburban and rural communities are frustrated by Seattle’s failed approach to homelessness (while being told they must help fund the underperforming effort).
Councilmember Dunn serves the 9th King County Council District (South Bellevue, Renton, Maple Valley, Black Diamond and Enumclaw). He is currently the Vice Chair of the council.
Last Friday the Seattle Times ran an op-ed from you in which you assert that King County should stop sending funds to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA). This would be a major policy change. What caused you to come to this decision?
First of all, to set the table—homelessness is a terrible, complex, humanitarian crisis. Every day, we see people on our streets in horrific circumstances, clearly dealing with mental health issues or openly using hard drugs even as overdose-caused deaths are skyrocketing. Meanwhile, everyday folks just want to be able to be safe and make a living—that’s just such a basic expectation of society. But the state of homelessness isn’t improving. We desperately need to see progress being made in a way that is visible and tangible.
I was very skeptical about the KCRHA when it was formed in 2019, and published another op-ed at that time opposing it. The very structure of the KCRHA insulates the decisionmakers from public opinion and accountability to taxpayers. I believe we need more accountability to the public—not less. Everyone who is impacted by the homelessness crisis deserves to have a voice that matters, and that’s what elected representatives are for.
The reality is, our government programs run on taxpayer dollars, which are a very finite resource. King County has sent hundreds of millions of dollars to the King County Regional Homeless Authority. There are a lot of other places this money could go. The key question for me is—are we getting the value back from the KCRHA that we are putting into it? I don’t see that we are.
Why is it important that King County stop funding KCRHA now?
These first few years of the KCRHA’s existence has been a chance for it to demonstrate its competency as an organization and its ability to reduce homelessness. It has instead had some pretty high-profile slip ups that have really harmed public trust in its institution. I outline some of those in my op-ed: costly budget mistakes, failing to deliver funding to service organizations on time, the nomination of a sex offender to a leadership position, controversy over unlimited paid vacation policies for its employees… the list goes on. I don’t think it’s a wise choice to continue trusting them with public dollars when they’ve shown themselves to be not only ineffective in making a visible impact on homelessness, but untrustworthy stewards of taxpayer dollars.
Secondly, it’s a timing issue. King County is party to a 5-year interlocal agreement with the City of Seattle that solidifies its participation in the KCRHA. That agreement expires in December of next year, as does the County’s funding obligation, so our time to exit is coming up quickly.
You state in the op-ed that the liberals’ dedication to the Housing First philosophy “is quite possibly the most expensive, least expedient approach to housing those who are homeless” and that it “ignores underlying issues that lead to homelessness.” Please explain why you believe the Housing First philosophy has been such a failure.
Housing First prioritizes permanent housing for the homeless above anything else. Not only do we simply not have the money to build this amount of housing—the KCRHA outlined in its 5-Year Plan approved earlier this week that it needs 18,200 units of housing by this approach, which is just unfathomably expensive—it would take decades to site and build blocks and blocks of government housing. And how would we avoid attracting people from all over the country who would like to have free housing? It’s just not practical.
Besides the clear logistical issues, Housing First is a system that keeps struggling people dependent on the government by prioritizing the provision of housing over the provision of other services, such as mental health or addiction treatment. What we need is an approach that focuses on equipping folks to ultimately exit government systems by helping them restore their life. Independency, not dependency, is the goal. This means flipping the script and addressing the root causes of homelessness—which is whatever issue destabilized their lives and led to them losing their housing—so that they can stabilize and exit homelessness. Housing First says that to solve homelessness, you just need to give someone a house. It’s overly simplistic and ignores the complex struggles that put a person on that path to ultimately become homeless. For many, the housing problem will only fully resolve when other problems, like mental health and addiction, are addressed first. After all, what good is a house if the person inside of it has an unresolved drug addiction? This doesn’t resolve the chronic disease—it just treats the symptom.
Unfortunately, nearly all of region’s liberal politicians have ignored the overwhelming evidence that Housing First has failed to end the misery for the thousands who are homeless and continue to support its disastrous policies. Do you see any wavering within the liberal establishment to abandon these policies or are they more committed to philosophy’s result of a bigger and more expensive government bureaucracy?
Given that the Seattle City Council voted this week not to criminalize public drug use, I don’t see a big shift in ideology happening on the far left. I do think that more and more elected leaders who are thoughtful moderates are growing skeptical that current tactics are working. It’s hard to witness the record numbers of homeless people dying, even in government-run housing, and keep making the case that we’re on the right path.
I believe the time will come when all elected leaders will have to decide between doubling down on Housing First, as the KCRHA is doing—which means asking their constituents for a lot more money to pay for it—or they will have to decide to invest in other solutions that tackle the problem more efficiently. The KCRHA has already made it clear their gold standard strategy would cost $12 billion. I’m not seeing the appetite in taxpayers to cover that bill. A lot of people are struggling to make ends meet as it is.
If you are successful in stopping the funding of KCRHA by the county, what would you put in its place?
Our region urgently needs more of a tough love approach that is far less permissive. People are, quite literally, being enabled to death. When you combine free needles and free fentanyl pipes with free housing, it’s a recipe for disaster—as we all have seen. I have been very open as of late about my own past struggles with alcoholism. As a person in recovery, I can tell you that if an addict is given a free place to live, free tools to use your drug of choice, in a place where illegal drugs are everywhere, that person will probably continue to use until they die.
Local governments need to at least provide a measure of social pressure against drug use—meaning that they should not tolerate the brazen consumption of drugs in government-run housing, in buses, on sidewalks, or in front of businesses. There is a great need to rebuild social standards that we have set aside in an act of well-intended compassion so that we can begin to dismantle our region’s national reputation as a haven for drug use.
What I would also like to see is a pragmatic, whole-of-government approach to homelessness—such as cracking down on drug dealers, cutting some of the red tape that hinders new housing from being built, helping those who are able-bodied find work or job training, cleaning up the piles of trash along our roadways and in our parks, and working to retain and hire more social workers who are doing some really tough work. We need less tolerance of bad behavior and more help for those who would use that help to better their position.
We also need to provide more opportunities for people who want to get clean and reclaim their lives. This means putting more funding aside for drug treatment. This means advocating at the state and federal levels to reduce the barriers to getting people into treatment. It also means elected leaders need to be brave enough to pursue some changes that are very unpopular right now within the bureaucracy. One of the most important things we could do now is designate some existing shelters as drug-free spaces for folks who are committed to recovery. The sad state of affairs is that homeless people who are consuming drugs have a lot more housing options than those who are trying to get or stay sober. Imagine that you are battling an addiction and sharing a space with someone who is actively, openly using. It would be nearly impossible to stay clean. This is the dark side of the “compassionate” approach to homelessness.
The answer to the homelessness crisis isn’t easy, but at the same time, these are all things in our homelessness response system that need to be completely rethought in order to make progress.
Finally, what do you say to those who argue that rural and suburban communities need to provide more funding to help the homeless problem that is mostly concentrated in Seattle?
A lot of rural and suburban communities that I’m talking to are, frankly, tired of having to deal with the impacts of Seattle’s failed policies on their own neighborhoods, and certainly don’t want to pay for them. So many people fundamentally disagree with the permissive positions of Seattle politicians that they see as attracting the homeless from all over the country.
These people are not heartless—there is a lot of compassion for folks who are struggling. But it’s asking too much to ask them to be okay with being victimized, endangered, and ignored. In just one example, there is a small business in a rural area in my district that, since an encampment formed next to it more than a year ago, has been repeatedly broken into, robbed, trashed, and recently almost burned down. Where is the help and sympathy for them?
If the KCRHA would provide solutions that rural and suburban communities could buy into, they would be less hesitant to collaborate. But there is so much frustration that rural and suburban voices don’t matter. These are frustrations that deserve to be heard and addressed.
If you would like more information on Councilmember Dunn or you would like to contact his office, please visit his official website.