Seattle, Washington: Service-Rich Housing Helps Combat Chronic Homelessness
For individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, securing and maintaining housing is a significant challenge. For housing and service providers, meeting the needs of this population presents its own challenges of funding, staffing, programming, and design. In 2017, Plymouth Housing Group opened Plymouth on First Hill, a permanent supportive housing development in Seattle, to address these issues directly. Plymouth Housing Group, a local developer and service provider, was founded in 1980 by members of downtown Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church. Plymouth Housing also partnered with the nearby Harborview Medical Center to provide medical care at Plymouth on First Hill, where rooms are reserved for some the medical center’s patients who have repeatedly struggled with maintaining housing. Plymouth on First Hill features a Housing First model and a robust program of supportive services to help adults experiencing chronic homelessness set and achieve their goals. To best serve its residents, among whom physical and mental illness are prevalent, Plymouth on First Hill also includes accessibility features. The project, which was recognized with the 2020 American Institute of Architects/HUD Secretary’s Alan J. Rothman Award for Housing Accessibility, marks a needed addition to efforts in Seattle to house the city’s most vulnerable.
Addressing the Need for Supportive Housing in Seattle
Seattle’s long stretch of economic growth has produced many lucrative jobs that attract newcomers to the area. Between 2010 and 2019, as the city’s population grew an estimated 24 percent and the cost of living increased, the production of affordable housing failed to keep pace, fueling a homelessness crisis. In its 2006 Point-in-Time count, the Seattle/King County Continuum of Care recorded 7,910 individuals experiencing homelessness, 25 percent of whom were unsheltered; in the 2020 count, 11,751 individuals experiencing homelessness were recorded, 47 percent of whom were unsheltered. Persons who have recurring difficulty maintaining or accessing housing because of poverty, disability, or a criminal record are particularly vulnerable to homelessness, a risk made greater by the city’s constrained supply of affordable housing.
Plymouth on First Hill contains 77 studio apartments for residents and 3 studio units for staff. Residents pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, with vouchers covering the balance. Two large common rooms, a kitchen, a computer lounge, and case management offices provide space for services and activities. Outdoor spaces include a courtyard that allows privacy from passersby. Accessibility features are especially important at Plymouth on First Hill, according to Michael Quinn, Plymouth Housing’s director of social services. A high prevalence of disability and mental health issues are present among individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. To address the needs of these populations, six units meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and all other units and common areas comply with universal design principles. The apartments feature accessible appliances, scald-proof faucets, wheelchair-accessible sinks, and grab bars in bathrooms. According to Quinn, timers have been installed on ovens and stoves to prevent accidental fires, a measure to protect residents whose substance use disorders can impair attentiveness, because sobriety is not a prerequisite for residency under the Housing First model.
Financing for Plymouth on First Hill
Slightly more than half of the $23 million development cost for Plymouth on First Hill was financed through 9 percent low-income housing tax credits, with substantial additional funding from the city’s Housing Levy (table 1). Since 1981, Seattle voters have approved $678 million for affordable housing through one bond and five levies. The program funds housing for seniors, formerly homeless individuals and families, and low- and moderate-wage workers; provides emergency rental assistance; and offers homeowner assistance to first-time low-income homebuyers. More than 13,000 units of housing have been funded with the support of the Housing Levy. Most recently, in 2016, voters approved a $290 million levy, double the amount approved in 2009, as an acknowledgment that the city’s homelessness rate had grown.
Table 1: Funding Sources for Plymouth on First Hill
|Low-income housing tax credits||$12,306,369|
|City of Seattle Office of Housing||7,717,100|
|Washington State Housing Trust Fund||1,500,000|
Successful Service Programs and Partnerships
As part of its partnership with Harborview Medical Center, Plymouth on First Hill sets aside 30 units for referrals from the center. Quinn notes that this arrangement can be especially effective at directing individuals experiencing homelessness with high healthcare utilization into supportive housing. Remaining units are filled through the city’s coordinated entry system, Coordinated Entry for All. Regardless of intake stream, the full suite of supportive services offered at Plymouth on First Hill is available to all residents.
Plymouth Housing’s service model focuses on building strong relationships between residents and service workers. Each resident is paired with a case manager who stays with them even as their service needs change over time. This personal relationship, says Quinn, is important for a population that tends to distrust institutions. To further encourage long-term and stable relationships between residents and providers, Plymouth Housing strives to keep caseloads low for staff to reduce the burnout and turnover that are common in what can be a difficult line of work.
Case managers work with residents to create a service plan based on the goals of each resident. Services typically include medical or behavioral supports, including substance use treatment. For some residents, learning to avoid damaging behavior is a positive step forward. Plymouth Housing believes in a harm reduction approach and offers clean drug-use equipment to residents dealing with addiction while they consider options to help reduce their drug use or access recovery resources.
Many residents set goals to help them become self-sufficiently housed, such as improving their incomes or money management knowledge. Plymouth Housing’s staff include an assistant to help residents complete their chores and maintain their apartments, skills many residents have struggled with in the past. Quinn also describes goals that, on the surface, appear unrelated to housing and include exercising, making friends, or finding ways to help the community. Additional services include counseling for veterans, working toward family reunification, and hospice care.
Centering Resident Success
As part of its commitment to advancing the understanding of best practices in the field of homelessness housing and services, Plymouth Housing invites researchers to study its programs and outcomes. Researchers have found benefits to Plymouth Housing’s focus on staff development and engagement; validated the cost savings to public services of a Housing First approach; and supported Plymouth Housing’s practice of centering resident voices, especially in trauma-informed care.
For some residents at Plymouth on First Hill, access to housing and services is already enabling movement to less costly, less service-intensive housing. Quinn says that five residents from Plymouth on First Hill have qualified to live in permanent housing with fewer services. Plymouth Housing Group is currently constructing a 365-unit affordable and supportive housing development in partnership with Bellweather Housing. This will add to Plymouth Housing Group’s 18 existing buildings in the Seattle area, which collectively house more than 1,000 people at various service levels. This capacity means that Plymouth Housing can offer Plymouth on First Hill residents institutional continuity, easing the transition to greater independence and opening up space at Plymouth on First Hill for others needing intensive support.