There’s an adage about cons that goes like this: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” After the 2019 Count Us In numbers were released last week — amid spring weather and more than three months after the actual point-in-time count — the good news of a 17 percent drop in unsheltered homelessness was met with understandable skepticism.
Coming on the heels of last year’s 15 percent increase in people without shelter, that large of a reversal just one year later is tough to believe.
Especially when the number of those counted in shelter this year increased a mere 3 percent, adding up to an 8 percent decline in King County homelessness overall.
All Home, the government partner that performed the count, adds even more reason for doubt by noting that requests for assistance have actually increased this year.
How does all this square? We don’t know, because details won’t be released until later this month. As Dr. Wes notes in his column, we’ve been “Barr reported.”
That, of course, is when a self-interested party releases a “good news” headline several weeks ahead of the actual report, thus forming a desired public narrative before more nuanced information becomes available.
In this issue, reporter Ashley Archibald puts what we know so far under a microscope. Her conclusion? We don’t know, but what we’ve been told so far strains credibility.
The other big news from the count is that the disproportional impact of homelessness on people of color has grown. While Native Americans make up less than 1 percent of the population, this year they were counted as 10 percent of people experiencing homelessness, up from roughly 3 percent last year.
Communities of color had a larger role in determining count methodology this time around and say that they have been undercounted in the past. This, then, is progress of sorts. None of those numbers, however, are in the information released last week.
This raises even more questions. Is the change entirely due to a previous undercount, or has Seattle’s aggressive focus on housing metrics when little housing is available led to creaming, a result that advocates have loudly predicted?
Again, those details are not yet available. And this, at a time when public trust is frayed, invites cynicism.
There is, however, one good reason to think the growth in homelessness has turned. While Seattle has, year after year, seen some of the fastest rising rents in the country, this shifted in 2018. Last year, Seattle’s apartment boom led to some of the slowest rental cost growth in the nation.
While the biggest price drops have been at the high-end of the market, where the greatest over-building has occurred, average rents in King and Snohomish counties rose less than 1 percent last year.
According to The Seattle Times, the rent for current tenants rose by just half a percent last year, or less than the rate of inflation. This is supported by the March 2019 Zillow rental market overview, which also shows a similarly low increase for Seattle rents overall this past year.
Nationally, the average rental increase is 2.5 percent, while to the south, in Kent and Tacoma, we’ve seen 3.2 percent and 5.6 percent increases respectively. This indicates that, while rents here may have leveled off, median rental costs of $2,510 for an apartment in Seattle continue to push people toward lower prices in the south.
As homelessness has spiked in Seattle in recent years, we’ve often cited the Journal of Urban Affairs study that predicts a 15 percent increase in homelessness for every $100 median increase in rent. The economic vulnerability caused by rising rents, we’ve pointed out, have trumped our efforts to manage homelessness.
It follows that as rent increases decline, so would increases in homelessness.
Whatever these numbers mean, there is little disagreement that more than 11,000 people homeless on a single night in King County, with 47 percent of these unsheltered, is far from acceptable, especially with the number of people dying on the street last year at a record high.
Maybe, after all is said and done, this is where Seattle turns a corner. I don’t quite believe it yet, but I’m willing to be convinced.
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.
Read the full May 8 - 14 issue.
We have removed the comment section from our website. Here's why.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.