Frustration around homelessness may not have resulted in a political revolution in last week’s Seattle elections. But the politics of homelessness may well have had ripple effects in election results in other communities across the state, as voters looked to avert the kind of crisis seen in Seattle.
Fears about a Seattle-level homeless crisis taking root in Snohomish County and Spokane appear to have hurt elected officials in both those places, candidates say.
And in both Federal Way and Port Angeles, voters approved ballot measures that would use different strategies to help prevent homelessness.
"A balance between accountability and compassion"
Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary, who lost his reelection bid Tuesday, said Seattle media's coverage of homelessness affected the race in his county 13 miles north of Seattle's downtown.
"I think this fear of government and responding to homelessness really was the driving topic in who was elected this year," said Trenary, who was defeated by newcomer Sgt. Adam Fortney, a veteran law-enforcement officer who cast himself as the tough-on-crime alternative.
In response to a series of jail deaths, Trenary oversaw reforms over the past six years attempting to confront the homelessness and addiction issues that he said were at the root of some misdemeanor arrests. To decrease overcrowding, he limited bookings for misdemeanor arrests of people with mental health or medical issues. In 2018, the Snohomish County Jail launched a medication-assisted detox program for inmates with substance use disorders as well as a shelter next to the jail.
As a result, the average daily jail population dropped from 1,175 to 864.
Fortney used some of those reforms against Trenary's administration, running on a law-and-order campaign. He instead promised to deliver "a balance between accountability and compassion" on issues related to opioid use and homelessness.
On the campaign trail, Trenary also found local voters concerned about crime and homelessness in Seattle.
"I think this fear has been stoked about what homeless people represent," Trenary said. "The idea that crime and punishment can solve it all absolutely was the message."
Seeing Seattle in Spokane
East of the Cascades, it was clear on election night that former broadcast journalist Nadine Woodward's defeat of Spokane City Council president Ben Stuckart in the race for mayor was, in Stuckart's own words that night, a "referendum on homelessness."
According to Woodward, homelessness became "the major issue in the race" early on in her campaign. She was motivated to run, in part, because of her concerns around public safety and homelessness as a downtown business owner, she said.
She expressed specific criticism about homelessness strategies adopted by Seattle, like Housing First.
She also pointed to how media had defined the issue, saying the controversial KOMO-TV special on homelessness "Seattle Is Dying" "was a wakeup call to people in Spokane."
"Most of the time we feel overshadowed by Seattle," Woodward said in an interview. "I think a lot of people were concerned [Spokane] was going to turn a deeper shade of blue if my challenger won. That just really stuck in their mind."
As of Friday afternoon, the winner of Spokane's other major political race -- that of Spokane City Council president -- had not yet been declared, but homelessness played a role in that, too.
In her effort to defeat City Councilmember Breean Beggs, Spokane businesswoman Cindy Wendle ran a campaign ad using footage of tents in Baltimore to comment on the rise of visible homelessness in downtown Spokane.
Though he still trailed Wendle by 145 votes as of Friday night, Beggs said he rejected the idea the Spokane City Council was attempting to turn the city into Seattle. "Even our progressives in Spokane would be conservative Democrats in Seattle," Beggs said.
Changes come to Federal Way and Port Angeles
In Federal Way, voters appear to be approving a measure to become the state's third city with "good cause" eviction legislation, a policy to prevent landlords from evicting tenants or not renewing their leases without cause -- nearly 40 years after Seattle passed such legislation. In October, the Burien City Council approved its own version of the law.
Federal Way's legislation, intended to reduce homelessness and housing instability, would add more renter protections by requiring landlords to show cause for evicting a tenant, like nonpayment of rent or violating other aspects of the rental agreement. Doing so will allow renters to raise concerns about the conditions of their unit without fearing retaliation in the form of a no-cause eviction, supporters say.
Port Angeles voters appear to be approving a sales tax increase of one-tenth of 1% to generate an estimated $325,000 for affordable housing per year. The money would be used to build or operate housing for people who are homeless, at risk of becoming homeless, people with mental illness, veterans, families, seniors and more.