Kent’s mayor, Dana Ralph, said neither of the two communities chosen to house people in need of isolation for coronavirus had experienced any cases of the virus before the new facilities opened. Residents of her town, she said, have wondered if their city was chosen by the county in order to protect wealthier neighborhoods around Seattle.
“The first two sites are probably the two most diverse areas of our county,” she said, “and are in the less affluent parts of our county. It’s not lost on us. ”
The Seattle region pioneered a process of decision making , starting about years ago, that requires city and county Officials to conduct “equity impact reviews” to make sure that poor and minority areas are treated fairly in government decisions. The equity impact idea has since spread to many other cities, including Oakland, Calif., Minneapolis, Dallas and Charlotte, NC Ms. Ralph said the process has worked well in the past and local leaders are proud of the region’s role in creating it.
“You stand those policies up in place so that in a time of crisis, you make sure how decisions are made,” she said. “But from the outside, it looks like all that got pushed aside because of the crisis.”
The director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, Leo Flor, said at a King County Council hearing on the White Center housing site earlier this week that a formal equity impact review had not been conducted, but that the values embodied by the rules definitely were incorporated. “The piece of paper, the tool? No, ”Mr. Flor said. “The equity impact process and values? Absolutely. ”
. Flor said that extended discussions with the community, the usual forum in which equity impact reviews take place, simply were not possible given the pace of the crisis and the crushing need to make decisions. “We did not have community engagement the way we normally would,” he said. He said that discussions would continue as the housing centers opened and issues arose. said county officials had to find a place to house people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus but had no place to go to avoid infecting other people. “We are developing facilities for people who do not have a home to go back to, either because they didn’t have a home in the first place, or because to go home would be unsafe to other people residing there,” Mr. Flor said. Ms. Ralph said that she had not been forewarned about the county’s plans for her city, and only found out after being called by a resident who had heard that the county was planning to purchase the motel. A court commissioner denied the city’s request last week for a temporary restraining order stopping the former Econo Lodge site from reopening as an isolation center, but an appeal was scheduled for next week in King County Superior Court.
“We are of the belief that we have control of zoning and permitting and that an emergency doesn’t take that away from us, ”Ms. Ralph said. “But our first frustration was that they did consult with us, they did not talk to us.”
Many cities are now looking at where to place isolation housing, some of them proposing to use trailers or various forms of existing housing. Seattle’s experience shows that the conversations will be tough, taking in fears about the virus as well as questions about who might be staying in the facilities as they open.
King County has said it will probably need isolation housing for travelers, for example, who get stranded in the Seattle region after exposure and are unable to go home until the incubation period for the virus has passed. Others could include emergency workers, ordinary residents who cannot go home to their families and homeless people – King County has one of the highest rates of homelessness of any big city in the nation.
The homeless person at the site in Kent was only the second occupant at the location, county officials said.
One resident who lives near the White Center site, Rita Aronson, who works as a hair stylist, said her livelihood has already been hurt by the large number of people canceling appointments as a result of fears of the virus, and the community can ill afford other economic challenges.
, an immigrant from Mexico who has lived for years in the White Center neighborhood, said she worried about the Children, including her 6- year-old daughter, who catch the bus to school near the facility. (Washington’s public schools were ordered closed by Gov. Jay Inslee this week.) “It’s a very residential area,” Ms. Ramirez said. One county council member, Girmay Zahilay , who closely questioned Mr. Flor at the hearing about how the sites were chosen, stressed in an interview that he understands the strains on the system, and fully supports the county’s health mission and its workers. “I know it’s a health crisis,” Mr. Zahilay said, but added that the county has an obligation to all of its residents. “Often times I think the word, ‘equity,’ becomes a buzz word, and the meaning gets lost because it gets thrown around so much,” he said. “During this unprecedented crisis, we have to make sure that the consequences of our decisions don’t fall on the most vulnerable and marginalized communities. That’s how we all get through this together. ”