Sen. John Braun Commentary: Despite His Blustering, Inslee Chose to Enable Homelessness Crisis


Washington is unlike any other state when it comes to the number of homeless residents. Not in a good way.

In December, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued its Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, based on 2022 numbers. In the categories of unsheltered homeless, chronically homeless and unsheltered chronically homeless, the numbers in our state have increased at a rate roughly 20 times more than the nation, as a whole.

That’s over the past decade. It coincides exactly with Gov. Jay Inslee’s time as chief executive.

With that as context, consider something Inslee told the news media a couple of weeks ago, at a south Seattle homeless camp that was finally being cleared. It had been the scene of multiple homicides, according to Seattle’s police chief.

“This is a scourge on our state, we should never allow this. These encampments, there is no excuse,” the governor declared.

Then Inslee spun his photo-op into a pitch for the $4 billion housing referendum he wants lawmakers to put on the ballot: “There should be no excuse for not attacking these homeless encampments and getting housing for these people, and I expect the legislature to do that," he said.

When a reporter asked about Inslee’s remarks, I noted how the homelessness situation became what it is entirely on the governor’s watch, and that he had been “fairly inept” at responding. Allow me to clarify that here.

Inslee is not inept when it comes to talking about homelessness or pushing for billions to put toward addressing it. But when it comes to making real progress toward reducing homelessness, the HUD report to Congress says it all.

Despite all the billions spent already, homelessness in our state has increased under Inslee — at a rate far higher than the national rate. Why should anyone believe his claim that another $4 billion would turn things around?

Let’s look at how Inslee’s “Rights-of-Way Safety Initiative” is performing. It’s his effort to remove encampments from public land along highways, supported by a $45 million appropriation added to the state operating budget during the 2022 legislative session.

There are over 2,000 encampments along state rights-of-way. During the first six months of the safety initiative, just 13 sites were cleared. That’s not even close to 1%, yet the work cost $3.7 million — more than 8% of the money legislators appropriated. No wonder the governor asked for another $68 million in the upcoming budget.

Let’s run some numbers: Six months and $3.7 million to clear 13 sites works out to approximately two sites per month, and $285,000 per site. Pretending the number of encampments is exactly 2,000 means 1,987 sites to go. At $285,000 per site, that’s another $566 million. And at two sites per month that’s 993 months of work — or 82 years.

I realize no two right-of-way encampments are the same, but if the Inslee administration can’t clear them more effectively than it has so far, there’s no reason to trust that a $4 billion housing referendum will deliver the results he claims.

With barely three weeks left in the 2023 session, neither the Senate nor the House has shown any real interest in the Inslee housing scheme.

Borrowing $4 billion above the state’s constitutional debt limit, as Inslee proposes, would cost nearly $2.4 billion more in additional interest payments alone, according to the Democrat senator in charge of the Senate capital budget.

Instead, he and our Republican capital-budget chief developed a 2023-25 capital budget that includes more than $500 million toward housing affordability. The Senate passed it unanimously last week. The $500-plus million would represent the largest-ever investment in the state’s Housing Trust Fund, if the appropriation carries through to the final version of the capital budget adopted this session.

A friend suggested the governor’s newfound interest in dealing with encampments might have something to do with July 11, when pro baseball’s All-Star Game comes to Seattle. Considering how that was announced back in September 2021, Inslee should have done more in the past 18 months if he cares how Seattle looks a few months from now.

If the governor truly wants to make encampments go away, and help increase the supply of housing, here are a few ideas.

Two years ago the governor — who should have known how drug use contributes to homelessness — signed legislation that responded to the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision by essentially decriminalizing hard drugs. Now he needs to convince Democratic legislators to support the Senate version of the new Blake bill, so our justice system can regain leverage to get people into and through treatment. The much weaker version in the House would be little different than the current law, which has been an obvious disaster.

Also, he should convince Democrats in the Legislature to reform the Growth Management Act, so land can be freed up for housing. And they should all stop pushing for policies that add to the cost of construction. More expensive construction means a dramatic increase in both home prices and homelessness.

The governor can proclaim all he wants that there is “no excuse” for encampments. The truth is, Inslee made choices that not only allowed encampments to remain but also have made our state an outlier on homelessness. We must do better.


Sen. John Braun of Centralia serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.