2021 State of the County
Text of State of the County speech:
COVID 19 exacerbated the crisis of homelessness. While the privileged among us can reasonably look forward to a quick and robust recovery, those of us who’ve been pushed further back in line during this time look warily to a future of widening pay gaps, housing gaps, health gaps, and disparities of all types. We are determined in our COVID response not to accept those disparities, but to bring that same urgency and humanity to helping our unsheltered neighbors in off the streets. Out of crisis comes opportunity – the opportunity to advance our shared vision for King County.
Meeting this moment in the homelessness crisis starts here — in Seattle’s Uptown neighborhood -- where I am pleased to announce that King County is purchasing our first Health Through Housing hotel. We will have several more properties in several more cities to announce in the coming weeks, ultimately bringing safe, supportive housing to 1600 of our unhoused neighbors this year and next.
In this one action we will permanently house more than one third of today’s chronically homeless residents. And following the County Council’s vote and approval to use federal funds, we will bring at least 500 more people inside, 24 hours a day, with services, through the expansion of enhanced shelter and other emergency housing.
Let’s look back at how we got here. When the pandemic struck, we had to act fast to save lives. We quickly moved people out of cramped shelters to prevent unchecked spread of the virus.
Congregate shelters, with mats close together on the floor, where you get sent back out onto the street first thing in the morning, are not ideal. They can fill a need on a short-term basis, especially in severe weather conditions, but they don’t do much to get people moving forward in life. And, in this case, the close quarters provided the exact conditions for the virus to spread. More than a year later, it remains true that our highest rates of COVID illness among people experiencing homeless happened early on, in the densest congregate shelters.
So, we acted. With the pandemic having decimated travel and tourism, there was ample hotel space to lease, and we did, as quickly as we could. We worked with providers to act quickly, too - and got hundreds of people out of cramped shelters and into rooms of their own. It dramatically reduced the rate of COVID transmission. But it did a lot more than that. We found that when we gave people a home – a place of their own, with all the safety and peace of mind that comes with that – not only did they stay safe from the virus – they thrived. That rest, that ability to take a breath, collect your thoughts, get a good night’s sleep, was transformative.
We don’t often think of what makes a house a home. But for people who have to leave a shelter every morning, the simple idea that you could have your own place to come back to at night makes a huge difference in your wellbeing. Or having a bathroom of your own. Or instead of worrying about all your worldly possessions being stolen, you could have a door that locks. And instead of having to sleep with one eye open, you could finally just sleep.
Let me tell you about one resident. His name’s Bob. He was a long-term shelter client. With the stability of his simple hotel room, he was finally able to address chronic health issues in ways that were impossible before. He had pillows to elevate his feet at night to reduce swelling. Space, in his own bathroom, to keep any wounds clean and dry. Three healthy meals a day. And he was even able to start exercising again. As he regained his physical health, his mental health improved too. Today, Bob has moved to his own, permanent apartment - and he’s healthy enough to schedule the surgery he has needed for years. He is reclaiming his life.
That kind of progress is remarkable. And it is possible for a lot of people. The University of Washington studied our success too. They found not only that the virus infections slowed when people had a place to call home, they found residents felt safer –more stable. That overall physical and mental health improved with sleep, and showers, and a sense of security. And that it gave residents like Bob more time to focus on long term goals, like getting a job, finding a place of their own. The time and the space to reclaim control. To quote one of the study’s authors, this effort is a “total life-changer.”
So out of the COVID crisis, we have a new path forward for bringing in the chronically homeless, a population that’s disproportionately black, indigenous, and other people of color.
But we can’t site, build, and stand up facilities fast enough for the impact we need to bring our neighbors in from the cold. We can provide housing or shelter to everyone at one encampment today, and then tomorrow we see that tents pop back up. That’s why it is time to work together to solve chronic homelessness.
Purchasing existing buildings means we can get housing ready that much quicker, setting up partnerships with our 39 cities in King County, and working with community-based organizations to make this effort successful. Let me take a moment to sincerely thank our homeless service providers and their frontline employees, particularly DESC, the Salvation Army and Catholic Community Services, who are operating this building in partnership with King County. They are our first partners who took this leap into hotels with us.
Collectively, these actions will be the largest — and most transformative — investments in addressing homelessness in the history of King County. This is my charge to King County employees, my hope for our entire County: do not let up as we put this pandemic behind us. Use this momentum. Stave off the onset of the next normal until it more closely resembles the world we want for everyone in King County.
As I mentioned, the chronically homeless population is disproportionately black, indigenous and other people of color. Our mark for success is bringing people inside, and we can’t do that if there isn’t a mutual trust – in the facilities themselves, and also on an individual level. The good news is that we have already been successful in building connection between individuals and communities that give them a sense of belonging. At Eagle Village, our housing partnership with the Chief Seattle Club for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, those personal and familial connections have helped almost 100 households come in from the cold and get back on their feet.
Our partnerships at Eagle Village have shown that when King County leads, hand in hand with our partners, we can achieve the goals our community has sent us to solve. Using trusted community members and organizations that partner with the people we serve, our Health Through Housing hotels will continue that success and make a dramatic reduction in the chronically homeless population.
Health through Housing is a big idea, built on individual partnerships and success stories. I am excited about bringing it forward across King County. What started as a crisis response to keep the virus out of cramped shelters, gives us the opportunity to address one of the biggest issues our region faces. We can’t serve our community as an anti-racist government without addressing the disproportionality in chronic homelessness. We will only be a community where everyone can thrive when we get those who have been left behind off the street and into a home.
Throughout the pandemic, Metro has been there for our riders and we’ve watched our ridership dramatically change. Our residents who rely on an integral transit system aren’t the ones wearing suits and ties downtown. They’re our neighbors we all rely on to keep our society functioning – the essential workers of all types in all corners of the county.
That’s why I’m excited to carry forward that spirit as we break ground next week on Metro’s new RapidRide H line which will connect Burien, White Center, Delridge to downtown Seattle. And Metro continues to work to address the mobility needs of future growth in Renton, Kent and Auburn via future Rapid Ride lines opening in the years to come.
I’m also excited to announce that next month Metro will re-launch Trailhead Direct, our innovative service that connects riders to some of the most popular recreation sites in our region, opening more and more access to the outdoors for everyone in King County.
Despite these steps forward, the pandemic put a unique strain on our transit system. The sudden drop in ridership meant a rapid decline in fare revenue. Prioritizing the safety of our operators and riders, Metro also needed to quickly implement a layered approach, guided by health experts. We required masks—and even provide them through onboard mask dispensers. We reduced passenger limits and closed off seats for physical distancing. We upgraded our air filters fleet wide. And waived the fare for several months altogether.
Thinking back to a year ago, we all needed to rely on essential workers, and throughout the pandemic, those essential workers relied on Metro. And in part, Metro relied on our own essential workers to keep the system going. That led to innovations like automatic safety partitions for drivers, expanding Vanpool eligibility for essential workers, utilizing unused Metro Access vans to support food bank deliveries, and encouraging everyone to take transit to get their vaccine, and holding a vaccine clinic for operators, mechanics, and our other frontline employees.
We need mobility solutions not only for the health of our economy and our workers, but for the health of our climate. Last year we retired the last diesel bus in the fleet. Later this year Metro will take delivery of the first 40 battery electric articulated buses, getting us closer to zero emissions for our already green fleet. But our work on saving the planet from the climate crisis – cannot and will not – end there.
There is a solemn truth to our work guiding King County closer to our True North. If we don’t solve the climate crisis, none of our work will matter. If we let our planet engulf in wildfires, or boil away salmon in our rivers, everything, all our work, will be for naught. I got into public life driven by the idea that we can do something today to pass along the planet better to those who come after us. From time immemorial to this moment, the health of our planet has been and must be our mission’s core.
Last week, the County Council unanimously approved our Strategic Climate Action Plan, a five-year roadmap to building a more resilient, more sustainable, more equitable King County. We will succeed the way we always do, by forging strong partnerships to achieve community-led solutions at a region-wide scale.
We will take bold actions to cut greenhouse gas emissions countywide in half by the end of this decade and demonstrate our commitment to racial justice while doing so. Frontline communities – those disproportionately impacted by climate change – have historically had the greatest burden of living near polluted areas and have had the least access to climate solutions, like energy-efficient homes. Typically, homes are either affordable or they’re green, but rarely both. By making ownership of green homes more equitable – and connecting those homes to transit powered by clean, renewable energy – we will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions while helping vibrant communities stay connected.
We will increase urban tree canopy, protect forestland that is absorbing carbon today, and prepare our forests for climate impacts. We will build on the progress we’ve made with land conservation, protecting farmland to strengthen our local food economy and creating urban greenspaces so that more people and families can enjoy the proven health benefits of open space.
My commitment as County Executive is to produce better outcomes faster: for us, for salmon, for orca, for the entire ecosystem. We cannot forget the stings of climate change – it’s not some far-flung idea left to other generations. It’s here. It’s now. And it’s on all of us to address the climate crisis and do everything we can to pass our planet along to the generations beyond our own. The cost of inaction is clear: flooding, wildfires, extreme heat – and deepening the racial inequities that persist in the county named in honor of Dr. King.
May 25 will mark one year since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. And while we can commend the jury for holding his murderer accountable, true justice is still out of reach for far too many. The work to transform policing, transform the criminal legal system, and transform America is bigger than any one of us. But each of us has a role to play in that fundamental quest. King County will be a leader, taking the risks to create real, difficult change, and showing other governments how to grab hold of the thorny stalk of racism and pull it up by the roots, keeping equity and social justice at the core of our work.
Our collective task now is to address this foundational dilemma: no one in King County can thrive, until every black, brown, indigenous, until every person of color can thrive in King County.
Over the last few months, my office has been working with the Council on our $600 million proposed supplemental budget. These are the funds to keep people healthy and safe, and to get everyone vaccinated. It combines federal funds secured by President Biden and this new Congress, with state and local monies available for pandemic recovery. We’ve included innovative anti-racist investments like grants to counter hate and bias, promoting digital equity, and rebuilding Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian owned businesses most impacted by the pandemic.
Throughout our work last year, we heard from an unprecedented number of community members and partners about ways to collaborate on and co-create investments that can further the truth that government should be breaking down racial barriers. We’re putting $25 million behind that idea, and we’re focused on partnering with the community to learn where and how that money can go to do the most good.
These investments and partnerships are the next steps in our long-term work to upend centuries of economic inequality by engaging directly with and empowering communities most affected. And they aren’t new to King County. This is the approach we’ve prioritized since the first Affordable Care Act enrollment; since the first ORCA Lift low income transit fare enrollment. Even in the current COVID 19 vaccine campaign - it is direct action by - and for - the communities most affected.
This is also how we’re working to improve the safety and wellbeing of our county. Through increased prevention, diversion, and alternatives to adjudication, we’ve been able to drive down the number of youth criminal charges from a daily average of 90 when I first took office, to fewer than 15 during the first quarter of this year.
This kind of nation-leading success is only possible with the work of partners across the spectrum, from the authentic voices of those most disproportionately impacted by the system and trusted community organizations working with King County staff, to our Public Defenders and the Prosecuting Attorney’s office. The only way to run the rest of the path to Zero Youth Detention, or to keep the adult jail population down to the current record lows and ultimately close the miserably antiquated downtown jail, is an all-community commitment to see it through, and to create a new paradigm for true community safety that reflects the collective will of the people of King County.
And in that spirit, last year, as part of the once per decade Charter Review, voters created a clear mandate for more professional, transparent, and accountable law enforcement, and for a Sheriff’s Office free of political campaigning, and under civilian control. I want to share my appreciation for the leadership of the Councilmembers who prioritized the passage of these amendments.
And I am determined to work with the Council to unite our community on this path to safety and accountability, starting with the transition process to an appointed sheriff. We all want the same thing. We want to know that we are safe – that our children, our families are safe. And we know that the most important solutions will come from the people of King County, from our Sheriff’s office employees, and from those most historically affected by violence. The priorities for the Sheriff’s office will be established according to the needs of community, and I am looking forward to aligning all of the work of this government- from health, to human services, to law enforcement - with the expectations and needs of the people; to our mission of creating a thriving King County for everyone.
Fourteen months ago, you would have seen thousands of employees here at the Microsoft campus. But then, virtually overnight, these offices emptied – and they are just now beginning to come back to life.
In those early days of the novel coronavirus, after the first outbreak in the nation happened just down the road from here in Kirkland, we all struggled to try to understand how to protect ourselves, and one another. We knew so little about the virus, how it spread, how to fight it, but we knew we had to act.
In that first week after we announced the grim news of the outbreak, and the first confirmed death in the nation, I talked with Brad Smith. Brad is the President of Microsoft, and he was weighing a lot of the same concerns I was as the person responsible for the well-being of thousands of employees. He and I both concluded that, with so little real information, but so much at risk, the only responsible path was to send as many people as possible - home. Immediately. To move abruptly, and for the first time, to remote work as the default. I believe that the signal Microsoft and other leaders sent to the private employer community in that moment saved hundreds, perhaps even thousands of lives.
Even in the earliest days we knew that King County needed to adapt in many ways, and lead a coordinated response unlike anything this community had seen before. At my direction, this government stood up facilities across the county to help people quarantine and slow the spread. We moved people out of crowded shelters. Our Public Health teams mobilized an unprecedented public information campaign in dozens of languages to help everyone stay safe.
We worked to make sure every county employee who could work remotely had what they needed to keep serving the people. Despite international shortages and uncertainty, we bought masks and gloves, and, in partnership with community groups, faith-based organizations, grocery stores, cities, County Councilmember offices, and chambers of commerce across the county, I’m pleased to report that King County distributed more than 20 million masks.
Those materials helped businesses stay open, helped families care for one another, and saved lives. Despite the fact that the pandemic landed here first. That we had no roadmap. That we had little help from the federal administration. Despite it all, the people of King County rose to the occasion. They listened to the experts, like Patty Hayes and Jeff Duchin. They tolerated inconveniences and even hardships to protect family, friends, and folks they didn’t even know. And, because of it, King County has achieved the lowest rate of COVID infection and the lowest rate of death from COVID of any of the three dozen largest counties in the United States.
The COVID crisis also created an economic crisis. One year ago, we faced the largest jump in unemployment claims since World War 2 - orders of magnitude greater than the great recession. When the pandemic took away the chance to earn a paycheck and put a roof over your head, King County was ready to help. We all know it’s less expensive to keep someone in their home than to lift them out of homelessness – but it’s also the right thing to do.
So last fall we distributed the first round of rental assistance grants. We worked with landlords and tenants to forge agreements to pay back rent, and partnered with community groups to find applicants and manage the program. With an initial investment of $40 million, we were able to help keep more than 9,000 families in their homes, able to focus on getting back to work, without the strain and burden of becoming homeless.
Keeping 9,000 families off the streets or from living their cars is a tremendous achievement, and something we can all be proud of. But while were able to help more than 9,000 families – more than 25,000 said they were in need. There are thousands of our friends and neighbors still behind on rent, and that’s why I am excited to announce the next phase of rental assistance in King County.
Starting next week, tenants can apply for our program, and this time we have more than $150 million in assistance ready to go. That’s more than 3x what we could invest last fall and could keep as many as 27,000 families stay in their homes. It’s an unprecedented investment in the health of our community.
Also, later this year, voters will have their say in renewing Best Starts for Kids, our program to invest in King County’s greatest asset: our youth. After six years of serving more than 500,000 children, youth, young adults and families, voters will have the chance to renew that investment.
The proposal includes not just continuing our support for new parents and preventing homelessness, but this year creates new childcare access for 3,000 more children and families in our county. And paired with the federal child tax credits that will cut childhood poverty in half, this childcare investment will mean more women will be able to stay in the workforce and continue their careers as they build their families. This is the biggest return on an investment that we can make, and I thank the county council for sending this proposal for voter approval.
This community worked together and kept cases low, and now that collaboration and spirit is ending the pandemic, one shot at a time, at clinics all around the county.
Here in Redmond, our Public Health team worked with partners like Microsoft and Overlake and Evergreen hospitals, and embedded a framework of equity principles into the operation of this clinic. Along with Redmond, King County opened clinics in partnerships with the cities of Kent and Auburn, and Seattle stepped up with one of the largest mass vaccination clinics in the entire country. Federal Way, Shoreline, and Snoqualmie are also hosting partner clinics. Together, we worked to ensure the communities hit hardest by the virus could get vaccinated as soon as possible, preventing further harm. We’re also hosting pop up sites with community groups to vaccinate communities who may be historically more hesitant to get their shot.
And now as we await the FDA’s approval for vaccines for youth 12 to 15, and ultimately for every child, today I’m announcing I’ve directed Public Health to work with every school district in King County to hold popup vaccine clinics to ensure that every student has the chance to get their vaccine. That’s vaccinating every middle and high school student in our county before school starts this fall – in person.
In six months, we’ve gone from barely having any doses for health care workers, to now walk-up availability at this site and many more across King County. For anyone unable to get to a clinic, we’ve also dispatched mobile teams to individual homes to ensure every person in King County can get vaccinated. And right now, we’re on pace to reach 70% of our adult population fully vaccinated more than a month before the ambitious goals set by President Biden.
That progress cannot be understated – this is a remarkable achievement by not just the health professionals of King County, but the people who have stepped up to do their part. I am more confident than ever, that with a continued effort by everyone in our community, this pandemic will end. But there is not some button to press to end it. It will end one shot at a time, and it is on every one of us to get our vaccine as soon as we can.
Only then can we get back to the things that make life special. Our arts and culture. Our sports. Enjoying a meal together - indoors. And creating memories with friends and family. The vaccines will allow us to recover and reimagine the community we want. The community that can ensure everyone has the chance to thrive. But rebuilding that future for everyone, starts with ensuring the health of everyone – and not just from the pandemic. From addressing the public health crisis of racism, to the global climate crisis, to ending chronic homelessness, King County is not just leading the way: we are making transformational changes for our shared future.
And that’s what I want to leave you with today. If there’s anything we’ve learned in this year, it’s that we must act now. With urgency. The pandemic could not wait. And neither can any of the other epidemics we face – of racism, of carbon, of homelessness. We had to act, right then and there, to save lives from COVID 19. And we are acting, right here and now, to uproot systemic racism, upend our impacts on the planet, and welcome inside the thousands who have found themselves without a home.
This year, these crises, they have tested us all. We didn’t choose the moment. But we, collectively, have shown that we are up to the test. That the people of King County have the skill, the will, and the sheer determination to do the most difficult things. To humanely solve chronic homelessness. To understand and upend systemic racism. To end the pandemic and create a healthier King County for everyone. To go to the mat to protect and restore this planet because if we do not – if we pass the buck, or settle for what’s comfortable – we will have failed our children.
But we won’t do that. The state of King County is strong, and healthy, and ready for a vigorous recovery. Let’s mark this as the moment where we made a choice. Where we decided to do - not what was easy, or what seemed in the moment possible, but what was difficult and right. Where we set our course toward that true north - and united to make this a place where every person will truly thrive.