The tautology is tired because it is obvious: Homelessness is solved by access to housing.
No one disputes this. But the question of how people get connected to housing and where those units are throws folks into a tizzy. After all, people without homes must be lazy or drug-addicted or moving here to take advantage of Seattle and King County’s generosity. A roof is only for “the right sort.”
Who said Calvinism was dead?
We could tell you — again — that most of this is false; that some people may be homeless due to their life choices, but most people are caught in an economic crunch because of institutional inequities, a weak social safety net and the fact that the U.S. economy provides a bunch of jobs for high-wage employees (as well as low-wage employees in service sectors), but not a heck of a lot for folks in the middle.
We could tell you — again — that studies show a growing concentration of people in urban centers because that is where employment and educational opportunities tend to flourish.
We could tell you — again — that people don’t actually have a lot of other options to access economic success or even basic needs, so poor people want and need to live in the same places as rich people.
But we’re going to take a leap of faith in assuming these facts go without saying, and instead look at the mechanics of one of the most effective forms of housing policy on offer in this country, a policy we know gets people inside: giving people an apartment.
There are a few ways of accomplishing that task. The government can treat housing like other public goods, building and running it without expectation of profit, but hopefully better than public transit. Or, it can pay the private sector to accomplish the same goals.
The U.S. invests heavily in option number two, despite serious consequences in terms of how and where those dollars are spent.
Until the 1970s, the United States used to offer publicly-owned housing, like many other rich countries. That’s not the case today, says Gregg Colburn, an assistant professor of real estate at the University of Washington.
“People said, ‘I think that government should get out of the business of constructing housing and being a landlord,’” Colburn said.
The policy has had unintended consequences; namely, shoving poor people into the same low-opportunity neighborhoods, which perpetuates cycles of poverty. Your zip code is indicative of all kinds of outcomes, from your socioeconomic status as an adult to your chances of getting diabetes. Public housing offered the lowest earnings and worst results, according to work by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz of Harvard University. But a voucher for private sector housing? That could potentially take you almost anywhere.
Housing Choice Vouchers, a program formerly called Section 8, are meant to ensure that people who make little to no money can afford a home. The amount of rent that a voucher covers varies based on the number of bedrooms and the location. The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) will pay up to $1,363 for rent and utilities in a studio unit and $3,702 for a five-bedroom unit.
Those are high payment standards, in large part because apartments are so expensive in the city of Seattle. And yet, it’s still not enough.
Even people with vouchers can spend months trying to find an apartment that will rent to them at a price they can cover.
Vouchers work better in places where competition for private market units isn’t as hot.
“My view on vouchers is I don’t think they’re 100 percent perfect or 100 percent evil,” Colburn said. “There is a time and place that vouchers are helpful. The current environment in Seattle is a good example of a place where the policy is problematic.”
SHA attempts to balance the number of people it can help against rental payments that allow people to live in the city, said Kerry Coughlin, spokesperson for SHA.
“You have to strike that right balance,” Coughlin said. “If we raise it too much, we serve fewer people.”
And there is no shortage of people to serve.
Nationally, there are three households that need help for every one that gets assistance through various housing programs. Locally, more than 22,000 people applied for 3,500 spots on SHA’s waiting list to get a voucher. The King County Housing Authority found similar numbers when it reopened its waiting list.
More than 2.2 million households get help with their rent, which has cost the United States $19.64 billion to maintain through 2018, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
That’s a big number, but apparently still cheaper than buying and maintaining units on the public dime.
“Public housing is a very expensive approach,” Colburn said.
Is the expense worth it? As with so many things, it depends.
With House Bill 2578, Washington state broke ground by requiring landlords to accept Housing Choice Vouchers as a form of payment. Passed earlier in 2018, this “source of income” legislation made it illegal for landlords to discriminate against prospective tenants based on how they paid for their unit.
That makes a huge difference. Before the legislation passed, landlords were free to deny a person’s application even if they could guarantee rental payments using a voucher. Before the Renton City Council stepped in to help with its own source-of-income renter protections in late 2016, voucher holders in one apartment complex found themselves facing eviction.
Amazingly, H.B. 2578 passed this year with the blessing of the landlord class, in part because Olympia gave them some insurance. In exchange for a legal requirement that landlords not discriminate based on income because the federal government guarantees a rental payment, landlords will have access to up to $5,000 to cover damages to units starting in 2019.
That and other supports have changed the landscape for private landlords, said Sean Martin, executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington.
“Attitudes are a lot different now than they were 10 years ago,” Martin said.
New protections are positive for many people who were legally denied an apartment, but that’s not enough, said Violet Lavatai, executive director of the Tenants Union (TU).
The TU intervenes when tenants are at risk of eviction and fights for legislative protections for renters. At the same time, pushing the government to regulate the middlemen who take in nearly $20 billion in tax dollars isn’t necessarily Lavatai’s preferred approach.
“If we could invest that money in building housing, a lot of people would be off the streets right now,” Lavatai said.
Public housing in urban areas would solve some of the problems inherent with the voucher approach. Government could technically keep rents low, and public dollars wouldn’t have to chase after private-market rents.
Putting people in government-funded housing is not easy, Coughlin warned. The “sticks and bricks” are just one part of the ongoing cost of becoming an institutional landlord.
“What’s always left out of that equation is operating, and that is a huge expense,” Coughlin said. “You can’t just build affordable housing. You have to have the ongoing, sustainable operating funding for it. Housing doesn’t run itself.”
SHA would know. The organization provides federally-funded vouchers for units, but also manages housing and uses project-based vouchers, meaning that it helps keep units affordable by applying vouchers to affordable housing complexes owned and operated by other nonprofit organizations.
So if public housing is too expensive and vouchers funnel tax dollars into private pockets with little recompense, how do we as a society house homeless and low-income people in a politically expedient way?
That reality plays out on Seattle’s streets every day. It is the invoice that has come due after decades of policy decisions that resulted in a lack of affordable housing and a glut of people who need it. The consequences of deferment have built up over time, leaving West Coast urban areas with crises in homelessness and affordability that The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recognized as a human rights violation in late 2017.
Seattle housing is the story of poverty in the midst of plenty. But convincing people who benefit from the status quo that things will only change if they pay their fair share feels a lot like that moment when the tab comes due after a long night at the bar. Someone has to pull out the credit card, and that someone probably won’t be happy about it.
Earlier this year, Seattle’s affluent business community vigorously resisted a tax on corporations that would have raised $48 million for affordable housing. According to a report released by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company in May 2018, local government would have to spend nearly 10 times that amount every year to provide the house all unsheltered residents.
Because raising that kind of revenue has proven politically infeasible, the city has resorted to half measures. Vouchers work for some; but where will real change come from?
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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