EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council greenlit the conversion of two local motels into transitional housing Wednesday. And all signs point to the program being low-barrier once beds open next winter.
With no Republican support, the council voted 3-2 to buy a motel near the Everett Mall and another in Edmonds. Councilmember Nate Nehring’s proposal to delay the decision and require all residents struggling with addiction to undergo treatment failed.
Opponents said the mandate would be counterproductive and not in line with the housing-first model now treated as a best practice.
Nehring unveiled the proposal last week, saying the mandate would be “a compassionate approach to help those struggling get back on their feet.”
County Executive Dave Somers rebuked Nehring in a statement to The Daily Herald.
“Despite the rhetoric of a few, there’s nothing effective nor compassionate about any efforts to delay necessary action,” he said.
The county will likely close on the $10.8 million and $9.1 million purchases in late October. The conversions would increase the county’s shelter capacity by 20%.
It’s considered a best practice by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
“Studies are clear,” said Kristen Holdsworth, a Lynnwood resident. “When someone has a steady address and a safe and secure place to exist, all other outcomes such as health and employment also get better. Substance abuse is a medical disorder. We need to recognize it as such and not consider it a moral failure. We wouldn’t require someone with diabetes to get their blood sugar levels steady as a condition of housing. That would be simply ridiculous.”
Snohomish County is following in King County’s footsteps, where the Health Through Housing initiative began nearly two years ago. The county has since converted 10 hotels into emergency and permanent supportive housing, with 24/7 case management, employment counseling and health services. Addiction treatment is not a condition of residency at those facilities.
A study published this year found the program was more effective than traditional congregate shelters.
“You can’t expect a person to improve their behavioral health, for example, if the thing driving their behavioral health concerns is that they live outside and don’t have a stable place to be,” program director Leo Flor told Sound Publishing reporters earlier this month.
Some Snohomish County residents expressed caution with the idea and asked the council to take up Nehring’s treatment mandate.
That included Republican candidate for state Senate, Janelle Cass, who lost a bid for Edmonds City Council last year. Cass told county officials that “treatment should absolutely be a must.” She described dangerous conditions in local homeless camps.
“Now this is just happening behind closed doors,” she said.
Last week, an executive with the investment company that owns the Everett Mall told the City Council that “name-brand companies” coming to the mall might reconsider after learning about hotel plan.
Somers addressed concerns about the motels being unruly. He pointed to a code of conduct that officials will develop for residents, along with around-the-clock staffing.
“We are not just handing out hotel keys to anybody that is homeless … we are not creating warehouses for people with drug addiction or chemical dependency issues,” he said. “What we are proposing is bridge housing to get people back on a path to a healthy, productive life and permanent shelter. And this housing will have 24/7 wraparound services.”
As of late last year, the county had 646 year-round shelter beds. Meanwhile, the county’s latest point-in-time count tallied 1,184 people living on the streets, in shelters or transitional housing — a 10-year high.
“It’s widely recognized that shelter capacity in our county is not adequate to address the number of people who live unhoused,” Everett’s community development director Julie Willie said. “In 2021, the city articulated several strategies to help alleviate homelessness in our city, with the top of the list being shelter to address those living unsheltered following the pandemic shutdowns.”
Several Edmonds city officials also signaled their approval. The city does not have a permanent shelter, and it recently banned homeless people from sleeping outside on public property.
“The need here is tremendous,” said Edmonds City Councilmember Susan Paine, who called Housing First “the absolute correct model to bring forward.”
Edmonds’ human services manager, Mindy Woods, described getting “call after call after call of people seeking shelter and affordable housing.”
“We just don’t have it,” she said. “I’m constantly talking with people who’ve got another rent increase, and it’s absolutely putting them out onto the streets. It’s called ‘economic eviction’ in the terms that we use, and they have nowhere else to go.”
State Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, and Rep. Emily Wicks, D-Marysville, also voiced their approval.
Councilmember Sam Low, who voted against the purchases, expressed concerns about renovations and operational costs. He previously told The Herald that the county shouldn’t be “in the hotel business.”
According to officials, the estimated cost to operate the 55- and 74-bed facilities could be up to $1,600 per unit per month. Major renovations are not expected.
Still, it could be several months before the motels are ready to house anybody.
Before her “yes” vote, Council Chair Megan Dunn said she was thinking about unhoused locals the county has already helped, as well as those “we could have helped.”
“People like Tiffany, who was homeless and nine months pregnant and had to give up her baby. Lenny, a senior who lives in his car,” she said.
“Sam, a vet who died from exposure with no place to stay.”
“Jason, who was homeless since he was 14 and now runs outreach programs.”
“And Mel, who, with her sons, lived in her car and then stayed in the same motel in Edmonds and got back on their feet and now they advocate and help others.”
Herald writers Isabella Breda and Ben Watanabe contributed to this reporting.
This story has been modified to correct when the shelters could open.