Almost a decade ago, we criticized the county’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. Launched in 2005 with great fanfare, the plan committed to dramatically increase spending on low-income housing, overnight shelter and other homeless assistance programs. A Committee to End Homelessness was established, run primarily by city and county officials and big shots in the nonprofit sector and corporate giving world.
While we appreciated the increased attention and dollars pledged, the plan lacked any commitment or set of policies to prevent the continued loss of our existing stock of low-income housing to redevelopment forces.
Even if the plan added 9,000 low-cost units countywide, for every unit created, three to four would be lost to demolition, condo conversion and increased rents. Given that many committee members had ties to developers, it was unlikely the plan would ever address displacement.
Ten years later, we have to add this story to our “We-told-you-so” file. The plan’s officials have taken credit for adding about 6,000 housing units countywide. In the past decade in Seattle, more than 6,500 low-income apartments have been demolished, another 3,000 lost to condominium conversion and at least another 6,000 lost to speculative sales and rent increases. Thousands more were lost in the rest of the county.
Today, homelessness has reached record levels: This year’s One Night Count total was 20 percent higher than last year’s. On any given night, there are 12,000 homeless people countywide, including about 3,000 in overnight shelters, 3,000 in transitional housing, another 3,700 on the streets. It’s estimated that 3,000 more go uncounted.
Political leaders won’t acknowledge their plan has failed and won’t link the problem of the loss of existing units to redevelopment and gentrification.
Instead, they’ve extended their plan indefinitely, promising great strides in the future. Yet Seattle and King County together now spend more than $45 million annually on homeless programs. That’s enough to hand each person in the One Night Count an annual $15,000 check.
We don’t want an end to these dollars for low-income housing and more shelter beds. But we’re simply shoveling sand against the tide if displacement-induced housing losses are not addressed.
Mayor Ed Murray seems to be making the same mistake. He pledged to devise a bold new plan for affordable housing and created a housing advisory task force. Unfortunately, the task force is top-heavy with corporate, downtown and developer interests and conspicuously short of neighborhood or tenant advocates, not to mention homeless people.
Murray will have to look elsewhere for real solutions. For starters, here are our ideas for him and county leaders:
▪ Require developers who demolish low-income housing to replace removed units one-for-one at a comparable price and this should apply in every discretionary land-use decision
▪ Pass a “Right of First Notice” ordinance requiring lower-income apartment buildings owners to first offer buildings for sale to nonprofits representing tenants, then to speculators and developers
▪ Create a Housing Preservation Commission to inventory remaining privately owned low-income buildings at risk of being lost and recommend strategies for quick acquisition of these buildings
▪ Inventory unused public lands and make them available for low-income housing development
▪ Identify and create new dedicated sources of funding, such as long-term bonds to develop low-income housing.
Murray has said he’ll listen to the community, not just his task force. We hope so, or he’ll repeat the failures of the Ten Year Plan and past administrations.