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$16 million for King County nonprofit paying back rent under scrutiny

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(The Center Square) – A member of the King County Council hopes to get to the bottom of how taxpayer funds are being spent in cases where tenants refuse to pay their rent.

Councilmember Reagan Dunn on Tuesday introduced a motion that would place restrictions on the Housing Justice Project’s use of King County funds and request an audit of the organization’s operations related to rental assistance and legal services.

“The bottom line here is we need to get more data and more information on what is happening with the tax dollars in King County with respect to tenant assistance programs,” Dunn said. “The Housing Justice Project may have gone outside the guidelines which say we shouldn’t be funding rental assistance for people who are above 200% of the federal poverty level. That amounts to a family of four making around $61,000.”

Dunn says taxpayer dollars for housing assistance are intended for people who are truly in need.

“We’re talking about funding to help someone who lost a job or has medical bills and they get behind in rent,” he said. “It’s not designed to help what I would call serial squatters who’ve figured out ways to gain the system.”

Dunn brought up a case in Bellevue that has made national headlines involving a tenant who is refusing to pay rent after declaring an income of $400,000.

After nearly two years of nonpayment, the Housing Justice Project stepped in and provided $88,000 in rent assistance in addition to free legal services.

“This indicates the money is maybe not being spent as efficiently as it could be,” Dunn observed.

The nonprofit has refused to respond to any of his requests for information. Dunn said he saw recent comments made in a local television news story suggesting the Housing Justice Project feels it is being attacked.

“I’m not attacking,” Dunn said. “What I’m trying to do is provide oversight, which is my elected responsibility, and shine the light of day on what is happening.”

Dunn’s legislation would reinstate the commitment that any county tax dollars be used for lower-income tenants.

“And then doing an audit to review what’s happening with all those dollars being spend, because just this cycle, HJP got $16 million from King County,” he added.

The Housing Justice Project is run through the King County Bar Association, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The $16 million it received last year from King County taxpayers is one of the largest investments for homelessness and housing in the county.

By comparison, King County Regional Homelessness Authority records obtained by The Center Square show the Salvation Army – one of the largest service provider recipients of county funds for homeless services – was allocated $15 million in fiscal year 2023.

Dunn’s legislation also calls for an audit of the Housing Justice Project that examines the outcomes of Housing Justice Project court cases. Currently, unlawful detainer cases are backlogged for at least six months in King County.

The audit would also examine the average case resolution time and the income levels of the tenants served. The report would be due to the council by Oct. 1.

Dunn said his legislation is expected to be taken up in the Law and Justice Committee next week, but it could be another month before a final vote.

King County Executive Dow Constantine didn’t respond to a request for comment before publication.