COVID recovery dollars: From housing to child care, Snohomish County outlines plans for spending $340 million

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, left, and Chief Health Officer Chris Spitters speak to reporters during Tuesday’s media briefing.

We don’t often use the words “COVID” and “money” in the same sentence. But the pandemic triggered a tidal wave of government spending — and Snohomish County is about to get another $80 million to help Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and the rest of the county recover from the upheaval of the past two years.

Here’s the math. The county already got $180 million from the federal CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) in 2020. A lot of that money was paid directly to you from the federal government at the start of COVID. Add to that $80 million more from Congress last year through ARPA (the American Rescue Plan Act). Now, add a second batch from ARPA — another $80 million in phase 2, coming this year. That’s $340 million — all earmarked for Snohomish County. That doesn’t count any state or non-profit COVID money. The money is still coming as the pandemic continues to ease up.

Though COVID case numbers are up — 498 new cases, an increase from 376 the week before — the overall trend continues downward. The average now is 60 cases per 100,000 residents. Only five COVID patients are now hospitalized. The latest variant, the omicron BA.2 strain, accounts for three of every four new cases nationwide, but County Chief Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters told reporters at Tuesday’s COVID briefing that “it seems unlikely that the new variant will produce the number of cases and impacts” of the earlier strains.

Spitters warned that COVID is “not going away. We’re going to have to learn to live with the ebb and flow of cases” as the virus continues to change. For two years, county residents have been living with that ebb and flow as the virus cut a deadly swath across the nation: jobs, housing and food security lost; schools and businesses shut down, our daily lives turned upside down.

The $340 million in COVID funding is designed to help families and communities continue to recover. Snohomish County established an Office of Recovery and Resiliency to direct that money to those who need it most.

The county has spent only a fraction of the first $80 million in American Rescue Plan Act money that it received almost a year ago. Kelsey Nyland, Office of Recovery and Resiliency communications director, said that only $18 million has been allocated. The money has gone to continuing relief programs — additional child care assistance, case worker services for seniors and families affected by the pandemic, premium pay for essential workers, and housing assistance.

So, why hasn’t it all been spent? Nyland said that $20 million has been set aside in county reserves and operations – in case there is a new surge of virus cases and medical needs. The county will reassess that this summer to see if the money can be redirected based on what the virus does.

Other money is slated to go to programs to help prevent the job, housing, health and food crises families and business faced two years ago. That includes $8 million to $10 milllion set aside to buy a hotel for shelter and emergency “bridge” housing for those who might become homeless. The county has a real estate broker but has not yet found a property that will work. The idea, Nyland said, is to focus on getting the unsheltered off the streets by offering a 24/7 year-round facility with meals and hygiene facilities for about 120 beds.

The county will use another $5 million to extend broadband access for communities and people who do not have it now. The remaining money will be used to support small business and workers who lost jobs or are underemployed, to rejuvenate the tourist sector and provide more child care offerings.

Why is it taking so long for that money to reach people and programs that need it?

“We want to be thoughtful about how we use this money,” Nyland responded, “because we get only one chance to use it and we want our investments to be responsive to our communities.” Federal rules for awarding grants also slow the process, she added, since the feds require “competitive bids,” which can take weeks to complete.

She expects the county will distribute another $10 million next month to small business, people who need housing, nonprofits and community organizations.

Still, the county is a long way from spending what’s already been awarded. So where will the next $80 million go that Congress appropriated for Snohomish County this year? That is still being decided, and the county wants your input. While Nyland believes much of the relief funds will continue to be spent on affordable permanent housing, and trying to resolve some of the root economic issues that made people vulnerable when the pandemic hit, you can weigh in on that spending. In May, the county will hold five in-person community feedback sessions. The dates and places for them have not been decided; we will provide that information as soon as it is released.

What’s in this for South County residents? Nyland says that South County cities, for example, might want to expand their human services efforts, increase child care options, add to behavioral health services, and provide more support for small business, tourism and housing.

Here’s the email address where you can ask questions and offer feedback:

Every idea, Nyland said, is on the table for discussion. The county is seeking community partners to help fill the needs. The goal, once the county has programs, “is to make them incredibly easy to find,” she added.

The COVID pandemic brought pain, hardship and challenges; it has also brought an infusion of money to help rebuild some of what we lost. The question now: How wisely will we spend that money for the future?

— By Bob Throndsen

  1. Using this money to buy a hotel is problematic. The artcle says $10m for 120 beds. That would be $83k/bed. Even if we assume 2 beds/room that would be $167k/room. King County just bought a hotel and paid over $300k/room. Cooking? Somewhere near the lobby? In the room?

    It would be far more cost effective to buy a home and use it for homeless housing. It would be even more cost effective to build a facility specifically designed for this type of housing. That would provide jobs as well. Using a voucher system that $83k would provide 28 months of “rent” at $100 a night. If we just rented a $2000/mo apt that would be 41 month’s of rent for that same $83k.

    We can more creatively use the $10m to support “bridge” housing. We can do more with the money if we creatively think about jobs, housing, and how we spend our money than just buying a hotel.

  2. Oversight should be huge with this money. The City of Lynnwood spent (or plan to spend) some of it on police cameras and to hire office staff – not actually helping the community citizens who need it most with food, shelter, utilities, medical expenses, vehicle gas, etc. Put the most vulnerable people’s needs first, then get selfish – in a transparent way.

  3. If the recent reports of mistakes, misappropriation and out right fraud regarding up to this date Covid emergency funds distribution have any truth to them, one would think the first order of business would be to appoint some sort of citizens oversight audit commission or committee to account for how the funds are actually put in escrow to start out and eventually appropriately used. Whose keeping the books and how seems the most important and most neglected issue here.

    As Darrol so expertly points out, the history and economics of public entities buying hotels and motels as interim forms of housing has not been demonstrated to be a real good investment of scarce funding available to meet the needs of the homeless and under housed among us. The glaring and obvious need is for the permanent establishment of some sort of regional park temporary housing area with cheap but safe and clean very minimal forms of housing for all who need and want it.

    Some clients would voluntarily go there for personal safety and comfort and some would have to be ordered by the courts to go there for the good of themselves and our community. There would have to be professional and volunteer staffing to make it work. Some of the volunteering could and should be supplied by the people being served at such a facility. Homeless and under housed people should be given the opportunity to help solve some of their own problems.

    Substance abuse treatment should be cheap or free as needed and the professionals should be the ones to determine the treatments needed, that in many cases would, unfortunately, just be maintaining the addicted enough to be non threatening to the community and not a burden to themselves. We all know functioning alcoholics, for example, who maintain jobs and pay taxes. The hopelessly drug addicted should be treated the same, to stop the flow of illegal drugs and resultant crime waves, if for no other reason. None of this will be easy, cheap or likely to happen I’m afraid.

  4. Buying a hotel in not only expensive but just a bit of window dressing. The article said it is a “bridge” but we have few strategies that address what Clinton has said for the long term and 120 rooms will do very little to address the needs and what is will do is be way more expensive than other ideas to provide some form of temp housing. Unless we are willing to sort out a more complete plan that can be fully funded and that will come close to working it may not be worth the effort and money to do things like “buy a hotel”.

  5. The Seattle Times recently reported that a good example of a successful transition program not only provides shelter but also the support services to help folks in transition. The cost of that program was $49,000/bed. That would suggest than in addition to buying a 120 bed hotel for $10m a successful transition program would cost an additional $6m to staff for success. That translates to about $100k to purchase a bed and $49k to staff the transition team. Hard to guess what the yearly cost to just maintain the bed but that too would add to the cost.

    Point is that if we want such a plan to be successful all the elements of success should be accounted for in the analysis to see this idea would be successful.

  6. Sounds to me like this is a budding case of analysis paralysis looking for a place to happen. Sometimes you just have to try something different and hope it works or at least works better.

    Eventually everyone of the people living in public spaces, often literally in human filth and unsanitary conditions, using self prescribed and often illegal substances as a coping mechanism or mental health “treatment” will come in contact with one or more agents of the public community. These agents are all expensive, to the taxpayer, components of society – people like police, fire, court officials, prison administrators and prison guards and public health service medical staff.

    Part of your over all analysis (to be an honest one) would have involve some sort of balance sheet representing what society is already spending. I hear you on this Darrol, but I think the study you suggest for determining the chances for success of a given program would just add to the overall costs we are already paying to essentially put band-aids on what has become a major artery bleed in our society.

    Why not just use some police, court, and prison money we are already spending to buy a 500 acre farm somewhere, put up tents and cots and require homeless people to go there to live, volunteer work and get treatment or be maintained on med.s as is practical for the individual wanting or needing help. We are already spending millions and really solving nothing as it is. The war on drugs is a failure, just say no is a failure, and locking people up for non violent acts is a failure. Not to mention a huge waste of public funding.

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