Housing for All: Taking the City to Task on the Homelessness Crisis
Our guest editor this month is Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders’ Union. Her group was instrumental in helping Leschi to get back the #27 bus and now they are tackling an even bigger issue than Metro: Housing!
On November 2, 2015, Seattle and King County declared a Homelessness State of Emergency. Since then, the number of unsheltered homeless people in King County has risen by nearly 50%. Early last year five and a half thousand people were counted sleeping tents, in vehicles and on the streets.
Some of the causes of this crisis are readily apparent: skyrocketing rents due to an influx of well-heeled tech workers, a shortage of housing, and global speculation in real estate.
But the causes of the homelessness crisis go deeper. We’re reaping the fruits of decades of federal and state disinvestment in public housing, mental health and social services. More and more people are left at the mercy of the private housing market, and for many, one missed paycheck or medical emergency could mean eviction and homelessness.
Last fall the Transit Riders Union helped to build a new coalition, called Housing for All, to push for a response to homelessness that meets the scale of the crisis, in a way that is both realistic and respectful of homeless people’s dignity and rights. So far, over 60 Seattle-based organizations have endorsed our platform. Homelessness is a regional and even national crisis, but we’re starting with the City of Seattle.
This begins with housing. The answer to homelessness is housing—whatever contributing factors push people over the edge, it ultimately comes down to not having the money to pay rent. Considering the severe shortage of low-income housing, the homelessness crisis is hardly a mystery.
According to the Housing Development Consortium, in Seattle alone the “housing gap” of additional homes needed by 2030 for households at 0–30% Area Median Income is 27,481. Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) projects that only 6,000 such units will be created in the next ten years. The Housing for All Coalition is calling on the City of Seattle to recognize this yawning gap and make a plan to bridge it.
Housing For All is calling on the City to recognize this gap and commit to using all the tools and resources at our disposal to fill it: seeking out new progressive revenue such as taxes on speculation and big business; bonding; using public land; and changing regulations to encourage housing types that are easier to build affordably, such as backyard cottages, mother-in-law units and SROs.
If the current plans to create low-income housing are so inadequate, how does the City plan to deal with the homelessness crisis? Unfortunately, some of their newest programs and policies are not just inadequate, but downright counterproductive.
Take, for example, the new focus on short-term “Rapid Re-Housing” vouchers. The City plans to divert funding from existing shelter and service providers to pay for vouchers that homeless people and families can use to find housing on the private market. After three, six or nine months, the vouchers expire and they are expected to pay rent on their own. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that this approach is not going to work for most homeless people in a housing market where rents are so high. Finding yourself couch surfing or back on the street, demoralized and now with an eviction on your record, is not a good outcome.
The Housing for All Coalition is urging the City to reconsider the short-term voucher approach and to commit to funding high-quality and accessible shelter and services at the scale of the crisis. We need more tiny house villages, and more indoor shelters that are not overcrowded or bug-infested—shelter options that a rational person would actually choose over sleeping outside in a tent.
Until we have enough affordable housing and/or shelter options that meet people’s needs, we have to accept that there are going to be people sleeping outside in tents, in vehicles and on the street. The question then arises, how should the city treat these people?
Too often, the City’s policies end up criminalizing the performance of basic life-sustaining activities in public spaces. The practice of forcing people in unauthorized encampments to move along, without being able to offer them housing or shelter that works for them, only serves to disrupt whatever sliver of stability and community they’ve been able to establish. It is harmful, not helpful.
The Housing for All Coalition is urging a harm reduction approach to unsheltered homelessness. If an encampment site is not irremediably unsafe or in conflict with other public uses (No, we’re not saying people can camp in parks and playing fields!), services should be offered without threat of removal. For people living in vehicles, the City needs to do better outreach and find alternatives to ticketing and towing that don’t result in debt traps.
Taken together, we believe these policies will put the City on the right track and begin to build a bridge to stable and permanent housing for our homeless brothers and sisters. But it’s not going to be easy—we need your help to win!
Last November, the City Council responded to our campaign by passing Resolution 31782, “establishing a process by which the City of Seattle will determine new progressive revenues including an Employee Hours Tax” for housing and homelessness. This tax would apply only to the 5–10% highest-revenue businesses (like Amazon), with the tax amount based on the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) employees. Also called the “head tax,” this is one of the very few progressive taxes the City has the authority to levy.
We want the City Council to pass strong legislation by the end of March, so that the City can begin funding new affordable housing as soon as possible. But here’s the catch: big business groups like the Chamber of Commerce don’t like this idea one bit, and they’re putting pressure on the Mayor and City Council to undermine this effort. We need your help to create a wave of public support that our elected officials can’t ignore.
We will launch this campaign on Wednesday, January 31, 6–8pm, in Hall 1 at the Labor Temple, 2800 1st Ave. You can learn more and sign up to receive updates and volunteer at HousingForAllSeattle.org.