The Renton City Council voted 5-2 Monday to pass an emergency ordinance that sets a time limit on King County’s 200-plus Red Lion Hotel pandemic shelter for the unhoused, as well as setting a series of standards for any future homeless shelters in city limits similar to city of Bellevue.
The ordinance was amended in an earlier council meeting to a six-month timeline for reducing shelter’s residents to 125, and for the entire shelter to leave the Red Lion by January 2022.
The emergency ordinance was strongly disapproved of by regional housing advocates and those who work with King County’s homeless population, who spoke during public comment over the last couple city council meetings. Local leaders including Rev. Linda Smith, former County Councilmember Larry Gossett and Melissa Glenn, Renton downtown libraries first social worker, opposed the ordinance as written.
“I think people on all sides can agree Renton is in need of a comprehensive, collaborative plan to address housing insecurity,” Glenn said at the meeting. “Throughout the past several years I’ve observed and experienced a lack of strategy, oversight and infrastructure regarding social services in Renton, and this work has largely been picked up by nonprofits and churches.”
Some Renton residents and business representatives spoke in support of the ordinance, citing an increase in 911 calls at the hotel, fears of guests at the shelter being on their streets, financial costs for neighboring businesses and the need in general for Renton to create zoning laws for homeless shelters.
Former Mayor Kathy Keolker, Chamber of Commerce CEO Diane Dobson and former City Councilmember Marcie Palmer all spoke in support of the ordinance.
“Renton has a long history of taking care of its people in need,” Keolker said, citing organizations and nonprofits in the city. “The decision before you is about zoning, not homelessness.”
A few council members had a lengthy discussion during the final vote, with Councilmembers Ryan McIrvin and Kim-Khánh Van voting no.
McIrvin said, during the Dec. 14 meeting, that the shelter guests are now Renton residents and that homelessness is not a crime. He also added that the Red Lion wasn’t suitable for the current use long term, but that non-congregate shelters is something the council should support.
“Renton definitely should do more,” McIrvin said. “I think we need a better plan for Renton, we don’t have enough shelter beds, affordable housing, and we have inadequate treatment systems in place for drug addiction and mental illness. That’s not something unique to Renton, but I think we do need to do more.”
McIrvin and Kan both pointed out that the city has not invested in its human services department as much as it could. There was council discussion during the budget planning earlier this year that Renton does not invest as much in its human services as neighboring cities, and has not increased the budget in the past eight years. Both Van and McIrvin voted for amendments to extend the length of the Red Lion shelter, but were struck down.
Mayor Armondo Pavone said the ordinance went through the city’s equity lens. He also offered a statement before the vote that he had no intention to kick people out of the hotel, but critiqued the facility’s accessibility and suitability as a long-term shelter.
“I think one of the big issues for us really is we have a different believe in what success looks like. We believe it’s important for Renton to be part of this regional solution (for homelessness), but I don’t believe we’ve found success yet,” Pavone said.
The ordinance has received regional attention as a signal of the battles between the county and cities over solutions to homelessness. Earlier this year, Renton and several other cities (including Kent) voted to make its own sales tax for affordable housing, after King County missed a deadline to take the money for itself, as previously reported in the Renton Reporter.