The housing crisis in this region has come up many times in conversations I’ve* had in several different contexts. This is a complicated issue, and many people have questions, so I wanted to offer some thoughts and information – based on my research – about its origins and possible ways to respond.
The Seattle Times ran an article in December of 2017 reporting that the population of people living without permanent shelter in King County was the third highest in the nation, both in terms of absolute numbers and percent of total population that is living unsheltered; only New York City and Los Angeles had higher numbers. KUOW 94.9 and NPR reported the same thing in December of 2018.
The January 2019 All Home’s Count Us In, a Point in Time count of people experiencing homelessness in our community reports that 11,199 people, including 1,550 people under the age of 18, were living outside. The good news is that these numbers dropped for the first time since 2012; in particular, fewer children and people with substance-use disorders experienced homelessness.
Still, about a quarter of the chronically homeless population in King County, according to the most recent All Home report (2017), are over the age of 60. You can see these and other real-time statistics on All Home King County’s Data Overview webpage.
It must be acknowledged that these numbers, and any that the media publish, are estimates – ones we can assume are lower than the actual numbers. It is very difficult to get a precise count, in large part because there is no way to guarantee a) accurate self-reporting on a census or b) that the organizations gathering the numbers can find every person living outside.
The important thing is that, in these and nearly every other major city in the United States, the problem always comes back to affordable housing. In other words, rents and property taxes go up, while paychecks and fixed incomes do not. In fact, Social Security payments are currently not even keeping up with inflation: The annual inflation rate in the US for 2019 was 1.7%; Social Security payments for 2020 will be increasing by 1.6%. This problem is much more difficult to solve than to explain, of course; there are many factors that go into potential solutions.
In terms of solutions, Seattle is in a difficult place. According to The Seattle Times, the Seattle area spends over $100 million a year addressing and responding to homelessness. The main sources of that revenue are property and sales taxes. Washington does not have a state income tax; instating one was voted down the most recent year it appeared on the ballot in 2016. Land for residential development is at a premium in a city with bodies of water and bridges everywhere. This is one reason property taxes are so high, which is itself one major contributor to the sky-high housing prices in this area.
Since 2017, nonprofits have had to prove to funders that they are responding to the housing crisis, whether it’s connecting folks with supportive services or helping program participants gain permanent housing. Agencies have to meet performance standards set by the City of Seattle in order to receive government resources. For those who are concerned about the housing crisis in King County, volunteering can be a way to support efforts to respond to the crisis. While volunteers will not make up for budget shortfalls or loss of funding nonprofits experience, volunteering with organizations engaged in aiding those affected by our county’s housing crisis increases the capacity of those organizations. Volunteering is also a chance to learn a lot about this major and persistent issue in our region; plus, the health and wellness benefits of volunteering are backed by increasing amounts of research!
As the RSVP Coordinator of King County, I work to connect volunteers like you to one of our several partner sites responding to the housing crisis, such as Catholic Community Services’ Volunteer Services Program, Habitat for Humanity, Multi-Service Center, Jewish Family Services, our many food bank partners, and others. These site partners – as well as our sponsor agency Solid Ground, which works to solve poverty by meeting basic needs, nurturing success and spreading change – are grateful for your support as we strive to carry out our mission.