LAWSUIT: Proposed Charter Amendment Violates State Law Mandating How Local Governments Set Policies to Address Homelessness

News Release: 
Wednesday, August 11, 2021
SEATTLE — A lawsuit filed today on behalf of the ACLU of Washington, the Transit Riders Union and the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness claims that a proposed amendment to the Charter of the City of Seattle is an illegal use of a local ballot initiative and violates state laws that mandate how local governments make and carry out plans for addressing homelessness. The lawsuit argues that the proposed Charter Amendment 29 goes beyond the scope of Seattle’s initiative powers.

Charter Amendment 29 (CA-29) recently qualified for the November ballot after a political campaign primarily funded by commercial real estate and corporate businesses calling itself “Compassion Seattle" submitted enough signatures.

The region’s housing crisis is a predictable consequence of rapid economic growth and overheated housing markets, fueled by decades of racially discriminatory policies and practices and it demands systemic solutions that address the root causes of homelessness. Recognizing this, state law sets out specific requirements for local governments that include coordinated, inclusive, and ongoing planning and decision making and precludes the use of the initiative process in a manner that would interfere with local governments’ authority to implement responses to the homelessness crisis, according to the complaint filed today in King County Superior Court. As such, CA-29 falls “beyond the scope” of the local ballot initiative process in Washington.

“CA-29 ignores well-established limits to the local initiative process,” said Breanne Schuster, ACLU of Washington staff attorney. “State law provides multiple avenues for constituents to influence homelessness policies and practices, but the initiative process at the city level is not one of them. CA-29 violates both our state’s local initiative laws and the proper function of our democratic systems.”

CA-29 would also establish policy for Seattle alone, abandoning an agreement reached in 2019 between Seattle and King County to plan and fund a regional homelessness response. In setting aside this already-existing plan, the proposed charter amendment’s “go-it-alone” approach again exceeds the scope of the initiative process.

“CA-29 misleads voters about what they're doing by filling in the bubble on their ballot,” said Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union, a democratic membership organization of working and poor people fighting for better public transit, affordable housing, and a better quality of life in the Seattle area. “It gives voters the impression that they’re shaping the city’s homelessness response, when in fact these policies will be illegal and unenforceable because they’re beyond the scope of the initiative process.”

“We share the belief that none of our neighbors should be forced to live outside, and that our city and region are best served by thoughtful proposals that tackle the root causes of homelessness and fund housing and other necessary solutions,” said Alison Eisinger, Executive Director of Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. The Coalition is a coordinating force of community organizations that provide shelter, housing, and services, and works to inform budget and policy decisions that directly affect the lives and futures of people experiencing homelessness. “CA-29 not only prevents the city from complying with state law but replaces attempts to address the affordable housing crisis in a coordinated, inclusive, and adaptive way. People in our community deserve good governance and investment in what really works."

Knoll Lowney, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, added, "Courts strike improper initiatives from the ballot all the time and we expect that here. The measure is bad policy, but the lawsuit is about its legal defects. It tries to tackle issues that courts say cannot be addressed by local initiative." 

The ACLU of Washington, the Transit Riders Union and the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness are represented by Knoll Lowney and Claire Tonry of Smith & Lowney, PLLC.