EDITOR’S NOTE: The B-Town Blog has also published an in-depth look at what the candidates had to say about issues of public safety during Tuesday night’s debates.
Possibly the most divisive single issue of Tuesday night’s Burien City Council candidate debates was the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s (DESC) permanent supportive housing project planned for downtown Burien.
In one-on-one debates held over two hours (watch video here or below), the eight candidates competing for four council seats made clear that they are sharply divided over the current city council’s 6-1 vote to accept that housing project into the city’s Affordable Housing Demonstration Program and whether such a development belongs in the city’s downtown core.
Position No. 1
Position No. 1 candidate Hugo Garcia, who sat on the city’s planning commission when that body unanimously recommended accepting the housing project into the program, said the nonprofit’s proposal met the program’s application requirements and qualified for the program.
“As for the location, having our urban core be the center of where folks get access to supportive permanent housing where they’re close to transit, health, food makes a lot of sense,” Garcia said. “It’s also close to our police station; it’s also a couple of blocks from our LEAD [Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion] offices.”
Fellow Position No. 1 candidate Martin Barrett disagreed, saying the housing project does not meet the program’s requirements and should not be located “in a prime area of development surrounded by small businesses, retirement communities and families.”
Residents of future DESC housing in Burien will find it difficult to recover from addiction and mental health challenges while “surrounded by people who are openly using drugs,” Barrett said.
“Placing someone in a facility dominated by addicts and those who are struggling with mental health challenges is a recipe for failure,” he said, arguing that the Housing First approach to combating homelessness has not been shown to help those struggling with addiction or mental health challenges. “This isn’t hope and it isn’t compassion.”
In response, Garcia said the Housing First approach does what the term implies: “address homelessness.”
Position No. 3
Saying it was “a tough decision,” Position No. 3 incumbent Mayor Jimmy Matta said he voted to accept the housing project into the program because it would provide “life-saving measures to the most vulnerable,” such as military veterans and other chronically homeless individuals.
“This is going to be a facility that’s going to treat human beings that need housing,” Matta said. “We have veterans that do not have housing, and this is the reason why I postponed the vote.”
His Position No. 3 challenger, Mark Dorsey, said he feels the DESC’s housing project “was absolutely pushed on our community and rushed through despite people throwing their hands up,” arguing that a last-minute requirement that 30 percent of units be prioritized for Burien’s homeless population should have been negotiated “at the beginning of the program when we had leverage.
“I feel like we did not do our due diligence in that at all,” Dorsey said.
The council “followed the process and procedures that were laid out,” Matta said, suggesting that Dorsey was “being a Monday morning quarterback.”
Dorsey said he opposes the housing project’s planned location, arguing that “putting a 95-bed, drug-addict house in the middle of our business core” seems like “throwing a stone in a glass house.”
The city should have done more research into alternative locations, Dorsey said, adding that he would have ultimately “let the public decide” through a vote.
The housing project’s planned location near downtown was “a private business transaction,” Matta said, arguing that the council’s role was to decide whether to accept the project into the city’s Affordable Housing Demonstration Program.
Position No. 5
Position No. 5 candidate Alex Simkus said the main issue for him is that the DESC’s housing project “is not a good fit for the Affordable Housing Demonstration Program,” which he said “was created to give leniency to developers so that they could create an opportunity to evaluate potential barriers to the construction of affordable housing.
“Unfortunately, we’re not going to learn anything from this project about how to make Burien more affordable, and it should have been a no vote for that reason alone,” Simkus said.
Fellow Position No. 5 candidate Sarah Moore did not weigh in on whether she thinks the housing project should have been accepted into the program, but she did say its planned location appears to be the best available option both for future DESC residents and the housing project’s neighbors.
Moore said she has looked at maps of the city in an effort to identify alternative locations but has not found another location that is as close to transit, food and other “essential services.
“From the point of view of the residents, I believe the location meets their needs for transportation, for shopping and groceries, for services,” Moore said. “Businesses and current city residents also benefit from how close the current proposed site is to transit.”
Simkus said he does not support a DESC housing project anywhere in Burien. Instead, he said he wants “to see something that realistically has better results than DESC” when it comes to addressing addiction, particularly the opioid epidemic.
“I believe that DESC is just another failed version of corporatized compassion,” Simkus said. “Overdoses continue to rise in King County and we haven’t stopped to ask ourselves whether low-barrier housing is actually helping.”
Having worked in a COVID-19 isolation and quarantine facility for people without secure housing, Moore said she’s seen how the Housing First approach can provide stability for people experiencing homelessness.
“A lot of evidence shows that the stability of having a place to be is a beginning to acquiring stability in other parts of life,” Moore said.
Simkus said that he does not “think that we’re going to see a positive outcome” from the DESC’s housing project and that “it’s going to put a lot of pressure on businesses.
“A lot of businesses are already so concerned that they’re already planning on leaving,” Simkus said.
The DESC’s housing project in Burien would be an apartment complex, Moore said, unlike a shelter where residents are made to leave each morning “carrying their belongings and looking for a place to eat and spend the day,” which Moore said she witnessed while working “in lower Queen Anne near a large congregate night-time shelter.
“That kind of anxiety coupled with no where to go and no where to use the restroom led to disruptive behavior,” Moore said. “A permanent residence will not require people to leave at certain times of day. I think a lot of anxiety that people experience about what the impact will be is based on experiences people have with shelters.”
Position No. 7
Position No. 7 incumbent Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx said she “wholeheartedly” thinks the planned downtown location for DESC’s housing project is good because it’s near public transit, the police station and a LEAD office. She also reiterated Matta’s point that “it was a private business transaction, which is not something that city government should be interfering in.”
Fellow Position No. 7 candidate Stephanie Mora said she does not support the housing project’s planned downtown location, urging Burien residents to “cut through all the spins and talking points of DESC” by walking Third Avenue near the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle to “get an idea what Ambaum and downtown will look like and feel like.
“As you’re standing there amongst the garbage and needles and people using drugs, ask yourself if that is the vision you want for Burien,” Mora said. “If that’s your vision, then I’m not your candidate.”
In response, Marx said the DESC’s downtown Seattle facility “is not remotely like what is being proposed for downtown Burien.
“It’s a different type of facility,” Marx said. “It’s not permanent supportive housing where someone gets to stay forever. It is also an overnight shelter coupled with housing that is there, so it’s comparing apples to oranges.”
As opposed to the DESC’s housing project for chronically homeless individuals, Mora said she “would support something that would help families that are homeless.
“I do support actual affordable housing that will house our community families who are currently struggling and homeless,” Mora said. “If we’re going to be demonstrating affordable housing and giving tax breaks and zoning to developers, let’s give it to affordable housing that can demonstrate how to help families in need from our community.”
Marx said that Burien already has Mary’s Place, which operates permanent supportive housing in a former hospital for 185 family members, where the nonprofit also provides medical support for families experiencing homelessness with medically fragile children.
“So there’s a step in that direction, and DESC is another such step that we need to take,” Marx said, adding that Burien’s downtown DESC housing project will address “the wrongs that we have been committing in Burien and the rest of south King County, which is sending our unhoused, mentally ill and/or drug-addicted communities into Seattle for decades and then blaming Seattle for the issues that we’re now facing.”
A council member’s comment
The candidates were also asked whether they felt it was acceptable that a few months ago a city council member “told Burien businesses to leave the city if you do not think the same in regards to DESC.”
Marx said the council member’s statement is not correct as paraphrased, adding that “it’s important that we lead with actual fact when we’re asking questions.”
The statement in question was made by council member Cydney Moore in a May 28 Facebook comment on a B-Town Blog post that announced an early June community meeting, hosted by Sunrise Financial Services, on the proposed DESC permanent supportive housing project.
“… our small businesses can learn to share this neighborhood with the people who live here, or they can find somewhere else to do business,” council member Moore wrote in her comment. “That’s all there is to it.”
Marx said it is “crucial for all members of the Burien community to feel safe to share their thoughts and concerns in a respectful manner, whether they are a business owner, a student, a parent, a faith leader or any other stakeholder.”
Mora did not say whether she feels council member Cydney Moore’s comment was acceptable.
Position No. 5 candidate Moore said that’s not something she would say and that it’s not how she thinks about the business community.
“Far from encouraging people to leave, I would say stick around and see,” Moore said, “stick around and see if the outcome is perhaps more positive than you had thought.”
Simkus said that comment is absurd and that council member Moore should be ashamed.
“Telling someone they essentially don’t belong in our city if they have a differing opinion is childish and ridiculous,” Simkus said. “I hope that in the future we can have a city council that respects those that choose to invest their lives in our city, regardless of differing opinions.”
Dorsey said that’s not a good comment for a council member to make.
“When I hear something like that, it gets me concerned of what’s going on that we haven’t seen or haven’t heard,” he said. “That’s concerning.”
“As an American,” Matta said he believes in freedom of speech but that council member Moore’s comment is unacceptable.
“To me, it’s very important that we all continue to be at the table, that we don’t become the Seattle where people have left the table and people are screaming at each other,” Matta said. “That’s not the Burien that we want to build.”
Garcia said that local government and democracy will only succeed when everyone is at the table.
“I’m sitting at tables on the business commission with business owners who do not support DESC and I would never tell them to leave the table,” Garcia said. “So it’s unacceptable for me to tell somebody to leave because they don’t agree with me.”
Barrett said council member Moore’s comment is completely unacceptable.
“It reflects a troubling trend on our city council that seems to be less concerned about the people and businesses they are elected to represent and more concerned about a particular agenda,” Barrett said, adding that council member Moore’s comment lacks compassion as well as an understanding of the risks and sacrifices it takes to start and grow a small business. “It is just another example of an extremist thinking that does not understand the whole.”
(Correction: This story has been updated to correct the Burien City Council’s vote count regarding acceptance of the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s permanent supportive housing project into the city’s Affordable Housing Demonstration Program.)
Below is the raw, unedited video of the debate, as produced by Live Oak AV:
Nicholas Johnson (he/him) is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer who grew up in Boulevard Park, graduated from Highline High School and studied journalism at Western Washington University. Send news tips, story ideas and positive vibes to [email protected].