By some measures, the Greater Seattle area is now the sixth wealthiest region in the U.S.1 It’s home to not one but two of the world’s four richest men.2 And yet every night, thousands of adults and children3 go to sleep in tents, under bridges, and in camper vans parked on city streets across King County.
The truth is, the very same economic forces that have made Seattle and King County such a wealthy place over the last decade have also fueled widespread homelessness here, primarily by pushing access to housing further and further out of reach for thousands of people. The private housing market has failed, spectacularly, to produce the quantity and kinds of houses needed to keep up with King County’s rapidly growing population, fueled by our red-hot economy. There are simply not enough homes in King County to go around anymore, and the people who can’t pay enough to compete are being pushed out of the county or onto the streets.
At its core, the solution to homelessness in King County is simple, if challenging: Build more houses.
Yes, the path to that solution is uncertain and complicated, and the obstacles, both political and financial, are considerable. But with sufficient resources and resolve, we can make King County a place where everyone has a safe, secure, and comfortable place to sleep at night, whether they make a nonprofit CEO’s salary, like me, or nothing at all.
I believe we must, as a region, embark on a massive, collective effort to channel the incredible wealth of King County into a transformation of our housing system.
Because we have no other choice: If we do not act, we risk seeing Seattle and King County become the exclusive grounds of the wealthy and privileged. How we respond to this challenge will define the kind of community we are.
Our vision of a solution to homelessness is as radical as it is commonsense. For the last decade, our governments have largely ignored the root cause of homelessness while spending billions of dollars and incalculable political energy seeking to treat only its most visible and inescapable symptoms – namely the thousands of people forced to live in tents and campers in public view because they have no other place to go.
Many politicians have found it convenient to blame people for their own homelessness. They suggest that individual life choices, mental illness, or substance abuse are to blame, instead of the systemic economic forces we know to be at work. Some, like the backers of the so-called Compassion Seattle charter amendment4, have suggested that we need only sweep people experiencing homelessness out of public view to solve the problem.
But the true cause of homelessness is without dispute.
Between 2010 and 2017, 3.3 new primary jobs were created in King County for every new housing unit, according to Up For Growth.5, 6 More than 265,000 people moved to the county, creating a surge in competition for a limited supply of housing. That fueled skyrocketing rents – up as much as 52 percent for some levels of rental affordability, according to a report from McKinsey & Company7 – leaving fewer and fewer options for people with lower incomes. The homes and neighborhoods that sustained low-income families for decades have been torn down, flipped, or gentrified for the benefit of people who can afford to pay more. The thousands of homes that have been built during those years have been insufficient to keep up with demand and are often priced out of most people’s reach.
As a result, there are now more than 11,000 people sleeping in emergency shelters and on the streets of King County every night, according to the latest estimate.8 That’s more than any other metropolitan area in the U.S. except Los Angeles and New York City.9
At the same time, we as a region have failed to support a service infrastructure sufficient to meet the needs of people with substance abuse and mental health disorders – which are as much a symptom of homelessness as they are a cause. But to focus solely on mental health and the actions of individuals, as some proposals have done, is to miss the fundamental and systemic cause of homelessness. As the late Scottish trade unionist Sheila McKechnie put it: “People who are homeless are not social inadequates. They are people without homes.”
To reverse homelessness and make King County a place where people of all incomes can live, we must build more housing that is affordable to Seattleites with a range of income levels and service needs.
This means we must rethink the role of local government in producing and creating opportunities for housing, and push for solutions at the state and federal levels. Here are concrete steps we can take now – and what you can do to support them.
Solutions and Actions
Fight for ongoing solutions
SOLUTION: Call on the Seattle Chamber of Commerce to drop its lawsuit against the JumpStart Seattle Progressive Revenue Plan.
The JumpStart plan10 will invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the creation of permanent supportive housing for the city’s chronically homeless by taxing the biggest and wealthiest businesses in our city. It’s our best option for building the housing we need for people experiencing homelessness now. The Seattle Chamber was a major backer of Compassion Seattle, so we know it’s invested in finding a solution to homelessness. It can demonstrate its commitment to a solution by dropping its lawsuit now.
ACTION: Sign the Drop Your Litigation Against Jumpstart! petition11 calling on the Seattle Chamber of Commerce to drop the lawsuit!
SOLUTION: Build broad support for Health through Housing permanent supportive housing facilities.
Health through Housing12 is King County’s bold initiative to acquire and build facilities to be used as permanent supportive housing, a highly successful approach for helping chronically homeless individuals find stability. Unfortunately, small but very vocal groups of people are using vitriolic and false claims to intimidate local politicians and block these important projects from being built.
Create new opportunities for housing
SOLUTION: Ramp up investments in Seattle’s city budget to create permanent supportive housing and housing designed to rapidly serve people currently living without shelter.
A city’s budget is a statement of values, and we deserve one that demonstrates our commitment to solving homelessness and making Seattle a place where people of all incomes can live. The Seattle City Council is now considering two competing budget proposals – outgoing Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget14 and an alternative known as the Solidarity Budget.15 Solid Ground is among the many endorsers of the Solidarity Budget, in part because it lays out a bold vision for creating the housing our communities need.
ACTION: Join us to advocate for transformative investments in affordable and permanent supportive housing at Seattle’s City Council Budget Committee meeting. There are opportunities to make public comments16 on both November 10 and 18.
SOLUTION: Make “social housing” a significant share of Seattle’s housing market.
Social housing includes a range of “nonmarket” housing approaches in which public entities build and maintain affordable housing available to broad swaths of low- to middle-income people. It’s a model widely used in countries across the world17 and has been shown to prevent the displacement and concentration of poverty associated with so-called “projects” developed under old U.S. housing policy. To take full advantage of the revenue-generating and dynamic aspects of this model, the City could consider establishing a Seattle Public Development Authority singularly focused on building nonmarket housing options available to workers, teachers, people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, families, and those living on low or fixed incomes.
ACTION: Read Growing Social Housing in Seattle,18 an article from The Urbanist breaking down Social Housing in Seattle. Urge your councilmembers to take whatever steps possible to increase the amount of social housing in our city.
SOLUTION: Make Seattle’s zoning more inclusive.
The city’s current exclusionary zoning policies, which are rooted in redlining19 and have perpetuated racial inequities,20 are significant barriers to the creation of the affordable housing options our communities need. We have an opportunity to rewrite these policies and create new opportunities for housing across the city in the planning process21 for Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, which is due for renewal in 2024.
ACTION: Watch this Community Panel on Combating Displacement and Addressing Exclusionary Zoning21, 22 online forum to prepare you to engage in the comprehensive planning process as it gathers steam in the coming years.
Push for bold action at the state and federal level
SOLUTION: Push the Washington legislature to pass measures to prevent homelessness and invest state resources in developing housing.
One proposal from Rep. Frank Chopp, a senior advisor to Solid Ground, would create a state agency and dedicated funding stream for the development of housing with behavioral health services for patients whose mental health depends on having stable, supportive housing. Called a “prescription for housing,” this proposal would create housing that would specifically serve many people who are chronically homeless and have the highest needs. Another bill would prevent landlords from spiking rents for tenants whose ability to pay for housing has been impacted by the pandemic. This would prevent a whole new set of Washingtonians from entering homelessness.
ACTION: Contact your Washington state representatives23 and let them know that housing and homelessness investments should be their top priority!
SOLUTION: Push for transformative federal action on housing.
As part of the infrastructure and economic recovery bills, the U.S. House and Senate are working right now to determine how to invest billions of dollars toward affordable housing as part of the Build Back Better agenda. This is an opportunity for the U.S. to make its largest investment in affordable housing in at least a generation, and would allow us to take a big step forward in ending homelessness and housing inequity. There are key targeted investments that more than 1,300 organizations – including Solid Ground – have signed on to support as part of the HoUSed24 campaign.
ACTION: We urge everyone to contact your U.S. representatives and senators25 to let them know how important it is that they don’t water down the affordable housing investments in the infrastructure and economic recovery legislation.
Final Thoughts on Solutions
At the same time that we embark on this transformation of our housing system, we must also stem the flood of homelessness by keeping more people from losing the homes they already have. The most cost-effective way to combat homelessness is to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. That’s why Solid Ground provides a range of services under the umbrella of Homeless Prevention, including tools like rental assistance, mediation, and Rapid Rehousing. Our housing crisis won’t go away with the pandemic, and we can’t afford to let up on these proven efforts.
But for these and any other policies to actually work, their implementation must be guided by the people whose lives will be most impacted by them.
Too often, people who have experienced homelessness – and therefore understand it the best – have been left out of conversations that inevitably lead to policies that do not address their needs. As Kirk McClain, a Solid Ground Residential Case Manager and member of the Lived Experience Coalition, recently wrote, “I believe it is a mistake to leave the solution to homelessness in the hands of wealthy white people who have never seen a day of homelessness in their entire lives, and would never lower themselves to actually get to know a homeless person.”26
We can’t afford to waste any more time fighting efforts that seek only to distract us from the economic injustices at the heart of homelessness. We must channel the frustration, anger, and impatience over homelessness to transform King County into a place where housing is understood to be a fundamental human right – not a luxury.
Articles, Resources, and Action Opportunities
- America’s Richest Cities: posted 9/22/20 by Samuel Stebbins on 24/7 WALL St
- THE WORLD’S REAL-TIME BILLIONAIRES: Forbes
- 2020 COUNT US IN: Seattle/King County Point-in-Time Count of Individuals Experiencing Homelessness: All Home
- Why ‘Compassion Seattle’ will do more harm than good for our unhoused neighbors: posted 7/7/21 by Shalimar Gonzales on Solid Ground’s Groundviews Blog
- HOUSING UNDERPRODUCTION IN WASHINGTON STATE: Economic, Fiscal, and Environmental Impacts of Enabling Transit-Oriented Accessible Growth to Address Washington’s Housing Affordability Challenge, published January 2020 by UP FOR GROWTH
- Washington’s Housing Affordability Challenge: published January 2020 by UP FOR GROWTH
- Why does prosperous King County have a homelessness crisis? Posted 1/22/20 by Benjamin Maritz and Dilip Wagle on McKinsey Insights
- Regional Homelessness Data: MEASURING RESULTS, MONITORING PERFORMANCE, AND BUILDING ACCOUNTABILITY: King County Regional Homelessness Authority (RHA)
- 2020 AHAR: Part 1 – Point-In-Time (PIT) Estimates of Homelessness in the U.S.: published March 2021, HUD Exchange
- Council Passes Mosqueda’s JumpStart Seattle Progressive Revenue Plan to Address COVID Response, Essential City Services, Affordable Housing: posted 7/6/20 on the Seattle City Council’s Council Connection blog
- Petition: Drop Your Litigation Against Jumpstart! sponsored by REAL CHANGE HOMELESS EMPOWERMENT PROJECT
- Health Through Housing: A Regional Approach to Address Chronic Homelessness: King County Department of Community and Human Services
- TAKE ACTION! APPROVE the HEALTH through HOUSING Implementation Plan: Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness
- Seattle 2022 Proposed Budget: City Budget Office
- 2022 SOLIDARITY BUDGET: The Solidarity Budget Coalition, including Decriminalize Seattle Coalition, Black Brilliance Research Project, Transit Riders Union, 350 Seattle, and more
- Seattle Select Budget Committee: There will be opportunities for public comment during three public hearings, as well as the first 30 minutes of each budget meeting – most often in the morning. You can register to give comment on this page.
-The Public Comment signup form is available two hours before each session begins.
- Sunday Video: Vienna’s Radical Idea? Affordable Housing For All: posted 9/26/21 by Stephen Fesler on the Urbanist
- Growing Social Housing in Seattle: posted 2/22/21 by Doug Trumm on the Urbanist
- A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America: posted 5/3/17 on NPR’s Heard on Fresh Air with Terry Gross
- Rectifying Seattle’s racist past requires a denser future, says report: A city commission argues that multi-family housing, once legal across the city, is key to building a more equitable future, posted 12/12/18 by Josh Cohen on Crosscut
- CITY COUNCIL FORUM ADDRESSES DISPLACEMENT AND EXCLUSIONARY ZONING, posted 7/23/21 by Andrew Engelson on South Seattle Emerald
- Community Panel on Combating Displacement & Addressing Exclusionary Zoning: Streamed live 7/22/21, Seattle City Council
- Washington State Legislature > Contact Us
- HoUSed Campaign: National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC)
- October 2021 Calls to Action: National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC)
- Want a solution to homelessness? Ask the people who know it best: posted 9/9/21 by Kirk McClain on Solid Ground’s Groundviews Blog