By Nicholas Johnson

When it comes to divisive issues in Burien, it would seem the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s permanent supportive housing project is second only to the challenges it is intended to address: homelessness and public safety, along with untreated mental illness and substance use disorders.

The six-story, 95-unit housing project would be the first of its kind in Burien and, for Seattle-based nonprofit DESC, the first of its kind outside of Seattle.

When on June 21 the Burien City Council voted 6-1 to accept the project into the city’s Affordable Housing Demonstration Program, it required as a condition of acceptance that the city and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority enter into an interlocal agreement, before the end of the administrative design review process, stipulating that at least 30 percent of units be prioritized for Burien’s homeless residents. On July 19, the council voted to give staff until the facility opens, likely in spring 2023, to complete the agreement.

As you might expect, this year’s candidates for city council have widely divergent positions on whether the DESC’s permanent supportive housing project for those considered “extremely low-income” is the most appropriate response to homelessness. More specifically, the candidates disagree on whether the project should have been allowed to participate in the city’s Affordable Housing Demonstration Program, which provides incentives and flexibility for the development of affordable housing.

That is the thrust of the second question in our six-part Burien City Council Candidate Q&A series leading up to the Aug. 3 primary election. Each day, we are hearing from the candidates – 11 of whom submitted responses – on one question.

Today’s question is:

After months of discussion, the Burien City Council voted 6-1 on June 21 to include the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s proposed six-story, 95-unit supportive, affordable housing project in the city’s Affordable Housing Demonstration Program. Had you been a member of the council at that time, how would you have voted? Please explain your reasoning.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Each candidate’s name links to their website; click on it if you want to learn more about them.

Position No. 1:


I would have voted yes.

I have received reports on this in my time at the planning commission and have taken tours of nearby DESCs. I have asked questions and talked with those who work there and those who receive support there. While there is no perfect solution or one-size-fits-all fix to our housing crisis, I believe that with good conversation and accountability, DESC will bring the greater good about in Burien and in the lives of the people who need housing and supportive services.


Good policy is formed by the desired outcome. First of all, we begin with the goal to restore our homeless to honored members of our community enjoying the dignity of work, functional relationships, healthy community and serving others. Secondly, our public places, parks, libraries, streets and alleys are reclaimed as safe, clean and useful places for their intended purpose by the taxpaying residents of our city.

I would have voted against the DESC for two reasons. It does not qualify for the Affordable Housing Demonstration Program and should not benefit from its exemptions. Second, this project is not consistent with the desired outcomes stated above.

At the over 4,000 doors that I have personally knocked on during this campaign, the majority of Burienites are extraordinarily compassionate and want a reasonable solution to the homeless crisis. They understand that it is a complex issue requiring significant commitment. But they are not willing, nor am I, to enable these men to facilitate their destructive lifestyle, on the streets or in the DESC warehouse.

Just societies operate with social agreements. One of them is, those in plenty are bound to help those who are in need. Those who are in need are responsible to become contributing members to society, becoming those who in turn can serve those who are in need.

The Burien DESC will be a warehouse where men will be housed to die young. That may be Seattle’s solution, but here in Burien, we are more compassionate. Our goal is restoration and we will fight for every one of our homeless residents to be placed in appropriate rehabilitation facilities to become honorable members of our community.

Position No. 3:


I am on the council and voted for the project. The growing needs of the unhoused in Burien must be addressed with a comprehensive strategy where solutions are inclusive of all areas and sectors of our city. DESC is one element of a larger tapestry of initiatives, projects and actions designed to benefit the largest number of people in our community. There is no single answer that can solve all housing needs.


I would have voted yes on the project at every opportunity and no to any delays.

I volunteer at Transform Burien and at our Severe Weather Shelter, and I know of individuals in our community that could personally benefit from this type of supportive housing. The purpose of the demonstration program is to attract organizations that have experience building various types of affordable housing to our community, and I believe having a council delay and micromanage their applications will discourage future projects from locating in Burien.


Had I been a member of the city council, I would have voted no, and I am perplexed that the majority of our current city council voted in favor.

Let me be clear, I am all for affordable housing and emergency services, provided it is done in a way that serves our community in the best way possible. The questions that were coming up as the vote was being proposed were questions that should have been answered before the project even got to a vote.

For example, why did our city council fail to negotiate a minimum percentage of Burien resident occupancy, for the life of the program, before the program even made it to a vote? Why was that being negotiated as the vote was happening? Why was the program being rushed through the city council? Bottom line is that this project was not thoroughly vetted by the city council, with Burien’s best interest, and that was obvious.

Position No. 5:


I would have been a yes vote, for several reasons. First, we have veterans and adults with mental and behavioral disabilities living right here in Burien who will benefit from having a place to call home. Housing for these individuals will reduce the tension and fear felt by downtown business owners over people living outdoors around their shops.

Second, I believe that individuals need housing as much as families do, and often have fewer resources. In the past eight months, I was site manager for a COVID-19 Isolation and Quarantine facility, which provides a safe and secure place to isolate for folks who do not have access to such resources on their own. Many who came to us were unhoused people living outdoors or in crowded congregate shelter situations. After adjusting to their diagnosis and their living situations, I witnessed firsthand the evidence-based practice of providing housing first, along with services, helping to stabilize people who have experienced the trauma of long-term life without shelter. People often leave their quarantine more stable, with a plan for housing and the beginnings of a plan for structuring their lives. The combination of housing, privacy and services is powerful. This is essentially the combination being provided by DESC.

And, lastly, I believe that the location of this housing is well suited to the needs of the people who will live there as they must be near services, transportation, and fire and police headquarters. While I love the idea that it could be situated elsewhere and then bring in services, this is a bigger and much more complicated ask than siting it where services already exist.


If I were on the city council during this time, I would have voted no.

The Affordable Housing Demonstration Program is a great program that was designed to help the city learn where the most effective changes could be made to help developers and residents build more affordable housing. The document itself states that its goals are to “provide flexibility in certain development regulations in exchange for provision of affordable housing”, and also “promote thoughtful layout of building, parking areas, on-site circulation, utility service areas, landscaping and amenity elements…”

It seems that, regarding the DESC project, rather than flexibility, our city caved on every request, and rather than thoughtful, creative ideas, we are just going to get a standard building that doesn’t conform to Burien’s vision. I don’t see how Burien will learn any useful, long-term ways to create more affordable housing in the future from this project.

I also believe that the local community impacted by any sort of government project should have the greatest say in how things are done. It is clear that during the DESC approval process, local concerns were completely ignored. The approval was council driven, not community driven.


This is a tough decision for me. Of course, I want to help people with insecure housing regardless of where they are from. However, I would have liked to see concessions made to the DESC project so that there can be more accountability and oversight within the project. I believe in housing-first initiatives, and I think on-site services are important in helping people get back on their feet.

I would have loved to have this project in my neighborhood of Northern Burien along the 120 bus route. North Burien is often ignored when it comes to public development, and public services should be placed near those who need them. Putting DESC closer to my neighborhood would make it closer to the people who need it, and encourage more development and traffic in areas that are historically minority-owned.

I would fight for these changes, but I also understand that the DESC project has been moving very slowly for quite some time now. Perfect is the enemy of good, so if I had to make a decision between the project as it is and nothing at all, I believe my vote on the project would be yes.

Position No. 7:


I was one of the six councilmembers who voted in favor of the DESC proposal. I voted in favor because the proposal met the requirements of the Affordable Housing Demonstration Program that I had helped to pass a couple of years prior, and because this strata of affordable housing is innovative and meets a level of need previously unaddressed in our city.


I would have voted no on allowing the DESC into the Burien Affordable Housing Demonstration Program, also known as Ordinance 718. Not no on the DESC coming to Burien, but no on allowing them into 718.

In 2018, the city council received the Community Assessment Survey. The No. 2 concern was a lack of available affordable housing for families. Our council went to work to address this issue. They passed Ordinance 718. The purpose of 718 was to find out why developers do not build more affordable housing in Burien. It was, as the title states, a demonstration program. The goal was to find out what the barriers are to build affordable housing in the range of $775 monthly in rent or mortgage. The reward for finding out these barriers and providing them to the city was massive tax relief plus variances on building codes. However, due to 718 being poorly written, it became subject to manipulation.

The DESC wanted to build a 95-unit building for supportive housing 1,000-feet from our business corridor. The building could not be approved due to a lack of parking and zoning issues. To overcome the restrictions, the DESC rebranded itself from a supportive-housing model to an affordable-housing model so they could qualify for 718 and build in that location anyway. They are a rich company, with more than $58 million in assets. They cannot demonstrate how to construct low-income affordable housing as described in 718, so why give them a waver on parking – they only had room for three parking stalls – and why should they not pay taxes?

In short, 718 is about finding new ways to construct affordable housing for families. They cannot teach Burien anything on how to build affordable housing at a lower cost – that is not their business core.


I would have voted no. The question before the council was, does the DESC qualify for the Affordable Housing Demonstration Program? By any objective measure, it does not qualify as affordable housing nor is it being built affordably.

Affordable housing is needed in Burien but this isn’t the project. DESC is supportive housing. I would like to see affordable housing built in Burien for families. DESC will be for individuals. I would like to see affordable housing built in Burien for those people who are already contributing community members.

The vast majority of the residents of DESC will be from Seattle and King County. As an example, we could use affordable housing as a tool to attract and retain qualified Highline School District teachers. However, it is difficult for us as a city to do creative things like this when we’re giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax breaks and lost revenue to the DESC.