King County’s Emergency Housing Voucher Program Ahead of Nation
Federally funded Emergency Housing Vouchers are being put to good use in King County, with 786 households permanently housed. King County has leased 58% of the region’s federal voucher allocation, compared to the national average of 36%.
In May 2021, the three local public housing authorities, the King County Housing Authority, Seattle Housing Authority, and Renton Housing Authority, accepted over 1,300 new federal housing choice vouchers that the Biden administration made available through the American Rescue Plan. The vouchers would be distributed in partnership with the Regional Homelessness Authority (RHA). At the time, the Regional Homelessness Authority was just starting up, and had a total of three employees.
At the six month mark, just 10 people had used vouchers to move to permanent housing. But with more time—and despite the extremely tight and costly rental market in Seattle and King County—786 households that were previously experiencing homelessness are now permanently housed.
About the Program
At the national level, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development says that Emergency Housing Vouchers have had the fastest uptake of any federal voucher program in history. The vouchers were intended to assist individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness (sheltered or unsheltered); at risk of experiencing homelessness; fleeing, or attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or human trafficking; or were recently homeless and at high risk of housing instability.
To make the most of this new federal resource, the RHA consulted people with lived experience of homelessness, co-designing an outreach and referral process that leaned into existing relationships between homeless service providers and the people they serve. Drawing on this input, the RHA worked to target King County’s allocation of vouchers towards people living unsheltered and in vehicles—an unusual prioritization, as many other communities around the country focused on people deemed “easier to house.”
The decision to lean into existing trusting relationships was an easy one, said RHA CEO Marc Dones. “Instead of spinning up another faceless, transactional government application, we worked with service providers to build on the trusted relationships they had already established with people experiencing homelessness, and that relational framework made all the difference.”
About the Process for Getting a Voucher
Even with the reliance on strong relationships, the process is complicated. More than 80 service providers, many of them smaller nonprofit community-based organizations that did not have previous contracts for homelessness services with the City or County, received a referral allocation based on an equity-driven formula that takes into account factors such as domestic violence services and the race or ethnicity of an organization’s staff and the people they serve. For example, the Refugee Women’s Alliance received 28 referral slots, PDA JustCARE received 80, and the Lake Washington United Methodist Church, which runs a safe parking program, received 11.
Service providers refer people who might be a good fit to the RHA for assessment, and help them complete the housing authority’s applications. The public housing authorities then evaluate eligibility and issue vouchers. The region’s housing authorities have worked to reduce application and lease-up barriers by delaying certain documentation requirements, recognizing that a person living unsheltered may not have documents readily available.
Voucher recipients then worked with their referring service provider or housing search locators working on behalf of the public housing authorities. Housing Connector, an organization that partners with property owners and managers to lower barriers to housing, can also help find units for voucher-holders to lease.
Once a participant finds housing, the housing authorities pay the rental subsidy with federal funds until they no longer need it. The RHA also has issued a new funding opportunity for organizations to support housing search and ongoing tenancy support services.
Yes We Can House People on Purpose
“The efforts undertaken by such a large coalition of organizations and individuals to stand up this program have been nothing short of remarkable”, said Kristy Johnson, King County Housing Authority’s Senior Director of Policy, Research and Social Impact Initiatives. “KCHA’s contracted housing navigators with the YWCA, Catholic Community Services, and InterIm CDA, along with our landlord partners have risen to the occasion to help our neighbors access housing units in a very tight and competitive rental market. As of this morning 577 or 76% of KCHA’s allocation of 762 Emergency Housing Vouchers have successfully been leased.”
“Our region was fortunate to receive a large allocation of federal Emergency Housing Vouchers to help provide homeless people with long term housing,” said Seattle Housing Authority Executive Director Rod Brandon. “The King County Regional Homelessness Authority, the Seattle, Renton and King County Housing Authorities and a host of community-based organizations serving unhoused people quickly came together to establish a network and meet the significant challenges of housing people experiencing homelessness. SHA is proud to be part of that successful effort and will continue to work hard with our partners until all of our remaining Emergency Housing Vouchers are supporting people in their new homes.”
“This proves that yes we can house people on purpose,” said Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones, who also noted that the current homeless response system is moving between 5,000 and 7,000 households from homelessness into permanent housing each year.
“The bigger problem is that our region hasn’t addressed the root causes—rising rents and stagnant wages, structural racism and access to health care—that are pushing more people into homelessness every day.”