Saturday, July 28, marked the 1000th day of the State of Homeless Emergency declared by former Mayor Ed Murray. At the time, my concern was that this grand announcement was more about establishing executive control over homeless sweeps than truly helping people.
One child sex scandal and three mayors later, I can’t really say I was wrong.
In King county, 169 people died in 2017. This was 32 more than the previous year and nearly double that of six years ago. The rising death toll parallels a similar increase in rates of homelessness.
Our latest Point-in-Time count registered large increases in unsheltered and chronic homelessness and, as is the case around the nation, a huge surge in vehicular homelessness.
At the heart of this disaster is the reality of rapidly rising rents. Across the region, rental costs have risen 59 percent since 2011, or by an average of $620 for a typical renter.
A widely cited study has shown that for every $100 increase in rental costs, we can expect about a 15 percent increase in urban homelessness.
For every $100 increase in rental costs, we can expect about a 15 percent increase in urban homelessness.
Despite the gains we’ve made in reducing veteran, family and youth homelessness with targeted resources from multiple branches of government, more people are being priced out of housing than we have resources to help.
Nearly everyone agrees that the solution is to increase the supply of affordable housing. And yet, as the recent repeal of a tax on big businesses to fund housing reveals, the political will to do so remains elusive at best.
In Neutralizing Homelessness, a 1986 landmark analysis of federal policies to “end homelessness,” Columbia University professor Peter Marcuse describes why government is an unlikely actor to take decisive action on this issue.
Marcuse says that the widespread existence of homelessness in a society as affluent as our own is a moral outrage that challenges the legitimacy of the social and economic order itself.
“If government does not deal with homelessness,” says Marcuse, “it appears illegitimate and unjust; if it does try seriously to alleviate homelessness, it breaks the link between work and reward that legitimizes wage labor. Neither horn of the dilemma is a comfortable resting place.”
As this narrative plays out, we are bothered less by homelessness than by homeless people themselves. Rather than address the economic causes, we mystify them with victim-blaming and data abuse.
As this narrative plays out, we are bothered less by homelessness than by homeless people themselves.
Homelessness, therefore, must be depoliticized and ideologically neutralized.
But the way governments respond is typically to talk a great deal about ending homelessness, while taking little effective action to actually solve the problem. Solutions are “aimed more at dealing with ordinary (housed) people’s reactions to homelessness than with homelessness itself.”
There is no “State of Emergency.” There is only pretending.
Seattle’s “grand bargain,” as expressed in the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), is a case in point. With 65 cranes now dotting the Seattle skyline, just 19 units of affordable housing were created in 2017 through the Mandatory Housing Affordability provision at the heart of that plan.
Even more pathetic, just $101,805.44 was collected from developers who opted to pay into an affordable-housing fund rather than set aside affordable units.
At that rate, we’ll reach the 10-year goal of 6,000 affordable units approximately three centuries from now.
Why the dismal failure? Because Seattle elected officials are dragging their feet on implementing and enforcing the plan. In 2017, Seattle permitted more that $5.2 billion in housing construction projects. Very little of that will contribute to our supply of affordable housing.
This failure doesn’t just reflect an absence of political will. It reflects the absence of any spine whatsoever and tells a clear story: Seattle loves deep-pocketed developers way more than we love poor people.
Meanwhile in 2017, the city spent more than $10 million on homeless sweeps. This is roughly 100 times the amount Seattle collected from developers for affordable housing.
Seattle is indeed on the horns of dilemma.
Sweeps without adequate housing or even emergency shelter just moves people around while pretending to solve the problem. And yet, we don’t tax the development that’s driven rents skyward. Which leaves us stuck.
State of Emergency? No. Not even close. Right now, it’s only make-believe.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
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