Council member wants $1.7 million per year for new homeless RV lots

by: Linzi Sheldon Updated:

Councilman Mike O’Brien wants to spend $1.7 million a year on safe parking sites throughout the city, where homeless people living in cars or RVs can park and access toilets, dumpsters, water and electricity.

It’s a program that may seem familiar. Under former Mayor Murray, the city tried running RV lots in the past, but the program was deemed a failure, largely because of the costs. 

File photo from SODO lot.

The money for these sites would come from a new tax on businesses with more than $5 million in taxable sales a year. O’Brien estimates this applies to about 10 percent of the city’s businesses.

The tax would cost about $100 per full-time employee and would produce, O’Brien estimates, about $24 million a year.

KIRO 7 spoke to Jerry O’Connell and his wife, Ann, who live in a trailer they tow into Woodland Park every morning and tow to another site at night when the park closes.

“We had an apartment for about five years,” he said. “We had bugs and everything.”

O’Connell welcomes the proposal for safe parking sites.

“There does need to be a place where we can put RVs at nighttime and make people safe,” he said, adding that he would use one of the sites.

KIRO 7 discovered that, at the Ballard RV lot, which ran during the spring of 2016, only one person had been placed in housing after several months.

The lot had on-site counselors to help people with housing, mental health needs, drug treatment and other needs, but 24-hour security helped propel the monthly operating costs to $35,000.

Reporter Linzi Sheldon asked O’Brien how these sites would be different. He stated that there would still be counselors and case workers, but they would “not pay someone 24 hours a day to be on-site and put fencing around it.”

According to O'Brien, 30 sites at five vehicles per site would cost nearly $1.7  million in 2018. That's about $56,000 per site for the year. It is much less than the $35,000 a month for the previous sites, but there would be many more of these sites around the city.

Some businesses are already voicing their concerns about the proposed head tax.

Chairman George Bartell, of Bartell Drugs, which is headquartered in Seattle, wrote a letter to the council, saying, in part, "the city of Seattle's actions make it harder and harder to operate a business focused on serving our customers." 

Seattle resident April Graves said she likes the idea of safe parking sites, but not if businesses have to cut staff or benefits. 

“Just to know, hey, it's not going to fall to the employees -- they don’t own these,” she said. “That's frustrating to know that they just want to tax business owners for it.”

O’Brien also wants to allocate $3.3 million a year for mass-entry shelters, such as low-barrier shelters, emergency shelters, tiny house villages and sanctioned encampments.

All of these, O’Brien admits, would be stopgaps, not solutions, as the city works to build more affordable housing. The remaining $19 million forecast to be created by this new business tax, O’Brien said, would be used to provide affordable housing.

He said each affordable housing unit costs the city about $100,000 to build.

Members of Safe Seattle, a group that has scrutinized the city’s usage of homeless funding in the past, called O’Brien’s request for the $5 million “outrageous in the context that the homeless services system lacks complete accountability. ... We do not have a money problem, we have a strategies, solutions, and accountability problem. We are long overdue for creating a citizens’ oversight committee and a thorough audit of the homeless service system.” 


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