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Non-Traditional Approaches Used by Local Governments to Address Homelessness

Non-Traditional Approaches Used by Local Governments to Address Homelessness

Organizations involved in sheltering people experiencing homelessness, including local governments, are recognizing the value in shifting away from traditional emergency shelters to more innovative housing solutions. Prompted by the pandemic, congregate living spaces (shared, open group living) such as emergency shelters became a hazard for COVID-19 exposure, while non-congregate housing options (individual, private living spaces) were and are primarily reserved for longer-term, non-emergency housing like transitional housing or permanent supportive housing.

With local governments looking for cost effective, non-congregate options, converting leased hotels and motels into emergency housing and temporary shelters has recently become a popular option for cities and counties. However, renting hotel rooms on a long-term basis can start to add up, expense-wise, for an agency and is not a permanent solution. This situation is prompting more local governments to consider purchasing hotels/motels outright for use as transitional housing

A New Approach

Hotels provide several benefits that people do not receive in a traditional shelter setting. Individual rooms and private bathroom facilities allow for families to stay together and give residents more dignity in their living space.

In response to public health advice, King County began to replace or add space for existing congregate shelters by placing individuals experiencing homelessness into group hotels in April 2020. Researchers with the University of Washington (UW) studied the county's approach and found that not only did the hotels limit the spread of COVID-19, the primary goal of the program, it resulted in additional favorable outcomes for project participants.

During the period that the project participants were interviewed and studied, the UW researchers found that they were less likely to end their services and exit from the homeless response system. When they did exit, however, it was more likely that it was into permanent housing. These results were attributed to residential stability and increased feelings of safety among participants. Other beneficial outcomes participants in this program experienced included reduced interpersonal conflicts, as demonstrated by a decrease in 911 call volumes, and having more time to think about future goals, such as securing permanent housing, applying for jobs, or obtaining additional education.

So far, King County’s Health Through Housing initiative has made way for the purchase of five hotel properties and aims to house 1,600 people by the end of 2022. In Clark County, the Vancouver Housing Authority recently partnered with the Clark County Community Services Department and City of Vancouver to buy a hotel that would serve as a non-congregate living shelter, with the daily operations of the hotel to be provided the Catholic Community Services, a nonprofit. When funding for the shelter runs out, the Vancouver Housing Authority plans to convert the facility into permanent affordable housing.

One of the clear challenges of outright purchasing a hotel or motel property for non-congregate living is that the initial capital investment is high. Many municipalities decide to lease properties or units for a fixed amount of time, but these approaches may prove to be more costly over the long run and restrict the flexibility of the housing option. For the Vancouver Housing Authority, the hotel that was acquired will still serve as permanent affordable housing even as funding for the shelter is depleted.

With recent legislation and initiatives that have been passed (see more on this below), higher up-front costs may be easier to navigate, and interlocal cooperation may make operational considerations more manageable.

How to Pay for This New Approach

Several cities and counties have been awarded money through the Washington State Department of Commerce (Commerce) Shelter Program Grant, which funds equitable and creative approaches to develop or expand shelter programs. Many local governments have been using these funds to lease hotels or hotel rooms. Although some municipalities are still setting up their programs, the Shelter Program Interim Report has a complete list of how the $60 million in grant money has been used as of October 2020.

Another funding option that was passed by Washington State Legislature is the Rapid Capital Housing Acquisition program (SHB 1080 Section 1071). This program apportioned over $120 million to Commerce to issue competitive financial assistance to eligible organizations under RCW 43.185A.040 to acquire or rent real property for a rapid conversion into homeless sheltering solutions, such as transitional housing or enhanced emergency shelters. The bill also notably mentions hotels as one of the solutions for assisting individuals experiencing homelessness. Of the $120 million in total funding, over $93 million of it is set aside for competitive grants, though the deadline to apply ended August 5, 2021.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Congress established the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), which included Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (LFRF) to support local governments across the nation. These funds can be used for services to address homelessness, which would include efforts to pay for hotel or motel acquisition in order to develop supportive housing. Many local governments have yet to use or apportion the LFRF they have received and have until 2024 to finalize the usage of these funds. Some cities in Washington have already decided to use LFRF funds for such projects: In March, 2021Seattle decided to distribute their LFRF for building acquisitions in order to allow for social distancing.

Cities and counties can also use tax/bond strategies to fund this new approach. In order to fund the five hotels they have acquired, King County imposed a 0.1% county sales tax with a $400 million bonding package. This funding approach allows for more immediate and large-scale action if a municipality is to make hotel acquisition a high priority, such as via King County’s Health Through Housing initiative.

Lastly, collaboration and interlocal partnership can serve as an effective way to fund and implement this type of effort. One such example is from the City of Shoreline, which partnered with Lake City Partners (LCP), King County, and King County Housing Authority (KCHU) to turn a former nursing home into an 24/7 enhanced shelter that services up to 60 individuals. King County will provide the long-term acquisition financing, and operational funding will come largely from King County through a Commerce grant (Homeless Assistance Unit Shelter Program) as well as from the City of Shoreline. In projects such as this, it is critical that all involved partners do a good job of communicating with each other so that there are no surprises or unintended consequences.

Creative solutions for local government success often take time and resources but can pay dividends for those governments that commit to them and the people who benefit from them. As for housing solutions to tackle homelessness, there are a variety of priorities and approaches, especially with the pandemic imposing complex challenges. What is provided in this blog is another option to consider when tackling some of the complex challenges related to homelessness. 

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Emma Diamond

Emma Diamond worked for MRSC from October 2020 to June 2021 as a Public Policy intern. She is currently pursuing a Master’s of Public Administration from the Evans School at the University of Washington, focusing on local government and environmental policy.

Previously, Emma has worked on water conservation, sustainability, and racial equity projects for the City of Milwaukee and the City of Sacramento as an AmeriCorps fellow.

Photo of Justin Sharer

About Justin Sharer

Justin Sharer joined MRSC in July 2021 as a Public Policy intern. He is pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is specializing in environmental policy.

Justin has previous experience interning in the California Central Coast region with both the City of Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Economic Partnership where he worked on topics including climate action, sustainability, and equity.