By Nicholas Johnson

The Burien City Council has agreed to let a controversial housing project proceed to construction without first having a deal in place to ensure at least 30 percent of units are prioritized for Burien’s homeless population.

At its June 21 meeting, the council voted to accept the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s (DESC) first permanent supportive housing project outside of Seattle into the city’s Affordable Housing Demonstration Program, which provides incentives and flexibility for the development of affordable housing.

The council conditioned the project’s acceptance into the program on the approval of an interlocal agreement (ILA) between the city and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority by the end of the administrative design review process.

At about 11 p.m. Monday, during its July 19 regular business meeting, the council voted to give city staff more time – specifically, until the facility opens, likely in spring 2023 – to hammer out the deal.

“We anticipate that review process to be finished here by the end of the month,” City Manager Brian Wilson told the council. “They [DESC] would not be able to proceed unless that ILA is in place. As a staff, we’re asking for the necessary time to be able to construct a comprehensive ILA in Burien’s interest prior to this facility opening. We would begin working on it immediately.”

However, Wilson was apparently mistaken about the project’s design review status. As of Friday, July 23, the project applicant, DESC, had yet to submit its application for administrative design review, much less complete that review process, according to David Johanson, a senior planner in the city’s Community Development department.

Johanson clarified that the administrative design review process is not expected to be complete until the end of September, following a required public meeting likely to be held toward the end of August to discuss the site and the project design.

The council’s vote to give staff more time was also based on letters to the city written by the heads of DESC and the Regional Homelessness Authority professing their willingness to meet the council’s requirement that at least 30 percent of units be prioritized for Burien’s homeless population.

“DESC will work with other local service providers and stakeholders in Burien to identify and recruit people experiencing homelessness in Burien for tenancy in our building,” Daniel Malone, executive director of DESC, wrote in his July 15 letter.

“Part of this will include direct outreach by DESC staff to people living homeless in Burien. We are confident that these efforts will meet and exceed the requirement established by Council.”

Marc Dones, CEO of the Regional Homelessness Authority, which administers the Coordinated Entry for All program responsible for prioritizing the placement of chronically homeless people in permanent supportive housing, said the authority is committed to working with the city to develop a local referral process.

“Evolving the coordinated entry process is one of our top priorities,” Dones wrote in their July 14 letter, “and incorporating local access is part of that.”

Councilmember Kevin Schilling, who first proposed in June the idea of requiring that a percentage of the project’s 95 units be prioritized for Burien’s homeless population, said the letters represent positive progress.

“I think this is us as a city showcasing what it means to build a partnership with these multiple actors,” Schilling said during the July 19 meeting. “We’re the first city outside of Seattle to do this. Let’s just keep working on this and keep the process accountable.”

Mayor Jimmy Matta agreed, saying staff will now have the time to negotiate “the best possible deal for this city.

“When we first started this, it wasn’t 30 percent,” Matta said. “We’re at 30 percent. Hopefully we can push it to 50 percent. That would be great for our unhoused people here in the city.”

Councilmembers Cydney Moore and Krystal Marx argued that the council should abandon its requirement for an interlocal agreement altogether and proceed with the letters alone, saying they worry that such an agreement might ultimately be legally unenforceable, meaning not only that there would be no binding requirement to prioritize Burien’s homeless population but also that the facility’s opening could be delayed.

“Not knowing if it would be enforceable felt like a risk at best and a delay tactic at worst,” Marx said, explaining why she voted in favor of the ILA requirement during the council’s June 21 meeting, “so I went with: at best it will just be a risk, and that’s not something that we wanted to take.”

Councilmember Nancy Tosta said she is wary of unforeseen, potentially insurmountable hurdles to altering the federally required coordinated entry process.

“I just want us to know what we’re getting into here,” Tosta said. “Marc Dones has good intentions, perhaps Daniel Malone has good intentions, but whether this turns out to serve the residents of our community I think remains to be seen.”

Once the project clears the city’s administrative design review process, DESC can begin applying for building permits. Construction on the six-story building at 801 SW 150th St. is expected to begin in early 2022.