In 1971, real estate agents Bob McDonald and Jim Youngren paid for a billboard on the outskirts of Seattle. It was only up for 15 days, but that was long enough to leave a lasting legacy on Seattle’s collective unconscious.
“Will the last person leaving Seattle — Turn out the lights,” it read.
With Boeing as its backbone, Seattle’s economy boomed through the 1960s, fueled by demand from the commercial aviation sector, according to a New York Times article from the era. In 1969, Seattle Times guest columnist Miner Baker gave a warning: 1970 would be “a painful year of readjustment.”
Baker was prescient.
Lending rates went up, demand went down and Boeing began shedding workers by the tens of thousands. Seattle, a company town, rode the turbulent booms and busts with its most lucrative enterprise. By 1973, the rest of the country had been thrown into a deep recession.
Today, Seattle is richer than it’s ever been, and its economy more diversified. While Amazon looms large over the city’s identity, it’s still a major maritime hub and has a burgeoning life sciences sector, soon to be enhanced by a new campus on a parcel known as the Mercer Mega block.
The regional median income is a record $93,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and a chart from the St. Louis Federal Reserve of the region’s gross domestic product — a clumsy, but ubiquitous, measure of economic growth — veers relentlessly upward from 2010 to 2017, the most recent dates available.
And yet, the narrative pervading Seattle’s discourse is as macabre now as it was 40 years ago: Seattle is dying.
That starting point begs the question: What, or who, is killing it?
A vocal minority answers with “homelessness.”
I was asked to come on the KUOW “That’s Debatable” program to argue that no, homelessness is not killing Seattle. I believe that. As I said the night of Oct. 29 on the Langston Hughes Performing Art Institute stage, it’s the hottest of hot takes to assert that the people in this city with the least power — the ones clawing and scratching to get a hot meal, clean clothes, a shower and a safe place to lie down at night — have the capacity to take down the Emerald City at the height of its power.
Yet, there is an inexorable sense that Seattle is changing into a place that its longer-term residents no longer recognize in ways both banal and significant. Commuters sit in traffic on clogged freeways hardly meant for the thousands of new cars that course through its thoroughfares. Cultural venues and favorite spots disappear, making room for luxury condos and services catering to newcomers. Neighborhoods empty of the people and businesses that created a sense of place, an identity. And at the same time, the consequences of homelessness are visible in nearly every corner.
If Seattle is dying, the culprit is a failure to manage its success, and people experiencing homelessness are a tangible consequence of it. If something is killing Seattle, it is a deeper, structural force, and chances are it is coming for you too.
For the first time in seven years, the number of homeless people observed during the annual point-in-time count dropped in 2019.
Volunteers combed King County, searching under freeways and in remote areas. Service providers counted people who slept in their facilities and surveyed them, trying to glean whatever information they could to feed back into the system.
Overall, 993 fewer people were found in 2019 than in the prior year.
After the count, acting director of All Home King County, Kira Zylstra, tried to manage expectations.
“We are encouraged, but at the same time, it’s really important we don’t use this as a time to pause, but really dig into what we know is working and not slow down our effort to address the crisis,” Zylstra said in May.
Her choice of words was astute — very few people think that Seattle, King County or even Washington state can “solve” homelessness. They learned that in the dismal failure that was the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, a federal initiative adopted by communities across the country.
When Seattle and King County joined public and private forces to announce its 10-year plan in 2005, 7,315 people were homeless in the region. By 2015, that number had grown to 10,122. Then they declared an emergency.
Even as local governments pour money into the homelessness response, the numbers of sheltered and unsheltered people remain high. But according to All Home King County, the regional coordinating body for homelessness response, roughly 6,800 households — not individuals — exited the homelessness services system for permanent supportive housing in 2018.
The problem is that the growing city that once clocked an increase of 1,000 residents per week didn’t build a commensurate amount of housing, and many new units were out of reach for middle-income people, who are often characterized as making 60 to 80 percent of area median income.
Economics 101 is a crude approximation of reality, but in this case, it held true: The laws of supply and demand pushed housing prices precipitously upward.
Between 2010 and 2018, area rents rose 69 percent, according to The Seattle Times. In some neighborhoods, like Capitol Hill, rents more than doubled. Low-income homeowners — many of whom have held onto family homes for generations — felt the pinch, too. In a state with no income or capital gains tax, local governments rely on regressive sales taxes and property taxes to fund services. In 2018, Seattle’s property tax rate went up by 16.9 percent.
As prices rose, many longtime Seattleites began looking at other options, encouraged by the siren song of deep-pocketed developer offers to buy them out.
One of the most glaring examples of displacement is in the Central Area. Once a 70 percent Black foothold in a lily-White city, less than 20 percent of its current population is Black.
The upward pressure on housing prices became a key component of Dan Strauss’ campaign for the District 6 City Council seat. Before deciding to join the race, Strauss contemplated leaving Seattle, the town in which he was born and raised.
“We need everybody to be able to live here,” Strauss told Real Change in September. “I have seen a lot of the kids that I grew up with who said, ‘Yeah, we’d love to stay in Ballard.’ The kids that I grew up with can’t even afford to live there. I’m nearly at the point where I can’t afford to live there.”
Strauss sees the changes to his part of Seattle — increased traffic, high cost of housing, a near inability to build modest duplexes and triplexes — as a failure of policymakers to manage the massive influx of new residents. That is part and parcel of the homelessness crisis, Strauss said.
“When we don’t have affordable places for people to live, and we don’t have the single-resident occupancy hotels that we used to have in Ballard, we see more people falling into homelessness,” he said.
Seattle is far from alone when it comes to a deficit of affordable housing.
According to the National Low Income Housing Institute, it is impossible for someone earning an average wage to spend 30 percent or less of their income on rent for a two-bedroom apartment in 90 percent of U.S. counties.
In the Seattle-Bellevue area, a worker would have to make $36.52 hourly, working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year — or nearly $76,000 — to accomplish that. In Washington as a whole, that wage looks more like $57,783, according to the report.
A multiplicity of factors drive housing prices, but that Economics 101 argument keeps rearing its ugly head. Housing in rich cities is expensive, in part, because it’s hard to build more of it, artificially forcing prices skyward.
In Seattle, that’s partly because of policy decisions made decades ago that forbid multi-family units in 75 percent of the city where people can live, restricting those areas to single-family homes.
In true Seattle fashion, policymakers are slowly, painfully trying to alter that balance by allowing single-family homeowners to build rental units on their properties — though the cost to construct such units may very well remain prohibitive — and upzoning “urban villages” that are served by transit.
These are baby steps toward improving a problem that is like an unattended pressure cooker on a hot stove. The pot has blown its lid, and we see consequences play out in many major urban areas otherwise swimming in resources.
The problem, of course, is that local officials cannot access that cash, and moneyed interests have worked double time to prevent them from even scratching the surface.
Amazon marshaled business leaders and a network of frustrated, wealthy Seattleites to fight against the “employee hours tax” that would have been levied on 3 percent of Seattle’s biggest businesses to fight the homelessness crisis.
Even that tax wouldn’t have been enough; the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce chimed in with a report saying the region would need $400 million every year to effectively fund enough housing to rein in the homelessness crisis.
That amount is something one expects to see at the federal level — the only realm that can literally print money to address its poorest citizens’ needs. Federal investment in housing took a nosedive under President Ronald Reagan, and it hasn’t recovered.
Reagan is known for many things, like shutting down psychiatric facilities, busting unions and enacting fiscal policies that ultimately tanked the U.S. economy. However, his impact on housing programs falls by the wayside.
Housing was not a focus for the actor-turned-president. He famously couldn’t recognize Samuel Pierce, his own secretary of Housing and Urban Development who himself was so incompetent that when several of his subordinates went to prison over a corruption scandal, Pierce got off scot-free — investigators decided he was so checked out of his work that he legitimately did not know what was going on in his own department.
Instead, Pierce would retreat to his office and watch soap operas most of the day.
Under Reagan, funding to build new public housing and fuel the housing voucher program — which helped low-income people rent in the private market while spending no more than 30 percent of their wages — dropped from $26 billion to $8 billion.
That shift, continued to some degree by every president since, has had dramatic effects. Not only did the supply of new public housing slow to a trickle, but a market-based approach called Section 8 was starved as well.
Every few years, when Seattle Housing Authority and King County Housing Authority open their waitlists for Section 8 housing vouchers, more than 20,000 people apply for roughly 3,500 spots at each authority.
That’s not 3,500 vouchers. That’s just the chance to wait for a voucher to free up.
Local nonprofits can and do build housing on their own, but the scale is relatively small and reliant on discounted land, such as the transfer of the Fort Lawton property from the military to Seattle, a nearly free, 34-acre stretch adjacent to Discovery Park. Development of a 238-unit housing complex there has been stalled for more than a decade.
Financing such projects involves braiding multiple strands of funding from donors, low-income housing tax credits, local government and business partnerships to make it pencil out. Many of those sources come with strings attached, forcing projects to shift and change based on arbitrary requirements rather than need. It’s a slow process. Capitol Hill’s 12th Avenue Arts development took 13 years — and four mayoral administrations — to complete.
In the meantime, thousands of people in Seattle and King County wait, hoping for an apartment that might never come, and thousands more count down the days until they can no longer afford to live in the place they call home.
A refrain from frustrated housed people in Seattle is the admonition that the city simply isn’t doing enough to curb the worst side effects of homelessness, which usually means the perceived prevalence of litter, human waste, discarded drug paraphernalia and the criminality it takes to maintain a substance abuse disorder.
Such perceptions are fueled by narratives such as KOMO’s “Seattle is Dying” program, which put the blame for social disorder squarely on the shoulders of people experiencing homelessness and politicians who prevented police officers from dealing with offenders.
At last week’s KUOW debate, former City Council candidate and Seattle police officer Sergio Garcia described his frustrations with the process. The majority of the calls he gets are about people experiencing homelessness, but there’s little he can do, Garcia told the audience.
After the debate, Garcia told Real Change that it’s a difficult thing to balance, in part because business owners, tired of feeling victimized, want to rely on the police beyond policing.
“It falls back to small business. They’re getting hit everywhere,” Garcia said. “We’ve gotten to the point where they call us because people are homeless. That is not a crime.”
At the same time, criminality must be dealt with, Garcia said, but there needs to be services for people when they finish serving their time so that they can transition back into society rather than go back to the lifestyle they had before.
“I get it — these people need help,” Garcia said. “But where do we draw the line?”
With funding tight, social service strategies to combat homelessness and law enforcement tactics to deal with social disorder can work against each other. According to Plymouth Housing, a nonprofit housing provider, the cost of putting a homeless person in a hospital for three days or jail for three months could house them for a year.
Seattle alone will spend more than $100 million on human services over the next year, and yet it’s never enough. Front-line service providers won a small pay bump in 2019, but it’s still hardly enough to survive in an expensive city, where services are largely based. Many of them know they could be right next to their homeless clients should one thing in their lives go wrong.
Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), bringing together case managers, police and prosecutors to rehabilitate low-level, repeat offenders, has expanded greatly over the past eight years, from a pilot project in Belltown to cover much of the city and Burien. However, their outreach workers shoulder caseloads far higher than intended because of the level of need.
People addicted to opioids have few immediate options for help. King County opened the Buprenorphine Pathways Program in 2017 to offer immediate treatment, a key component to breaking the cycle of addiction. The program was at capacity within three weeks, and desperate clients waited in line for hours.
Of course, substance abuse disorders are not confined to the homeless population. The same issues, driven by the opioid crisis that got its start in the 1990s and is blossoming into one of the deadliest public health epidemics in recent history, afflict housed people as well. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 9.9 million housed people misused pain relievers in 2018, and 506,000 mixed heroin and pain relievers.
One of the most pressing issues of the opioid epidemic is that once people run out of prescribed opioids, they turn to street drugs like heroin and the far more deadly fentanyl, both of which are cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription pills. But most users are hidden behind four walls and a door. The homeless are who we see — the ones whose needles appear in public spaces.
The same is true for people forced to relieve themselves in the open. Seattle has so few public toilets that it doesn’t meet the U.N. requirements for a refugee camp.
These health and safety breakdowns can’t be laid at the feet of people too poor to afford privacy — people who engage in many of the same activities as their housed counterparts. Instead, these are signs of deep injury to the body politic: our failure to address the needs of the most vulnerable, leaving them open to attack and blame for surviving in public.
Seattle’s demise is greatly overstated, but the city’s problems are real. Market forces drive work and opportunity to city centers while federal divestment and local land-use policy constrain the amount of housing available. Housing prices escalate while services to prevent and ameliorate homelessness lag. An epidemic of opioid use and addiction wrack the nation while unscrupulous companies are only now being held accountable for their deceptive practices.
What we see playing out on our streets is the culmination of decades of policy failure at every level and an economic system that allows the very wealthy to hoover up the benefits of public infrastructure and research but fail to redistribute those gains.
When people say things like “homelessness is killing Seattle,” they are reacting to the negative impacts on their quality of life and the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
But we have been tricked by a 24-hour news cycle that thrives on salacious fearmongering to scapegoat a population that barely has a voice, much less political power.
Homelessness is not killing Seattle. Seattle’s illness is structural, and it is a sickness we see replicated in other successful metropolises.
Systemic ills offer the hope that if policy failure created the crisis, policy can also be leveraged to fix it, or at least improve it. And we know what works.
Resourcing those solutions is critical and the one thing that neither Seattle nor any major city can afford entirely on its own. By targeting solutions to help those with the least, our society can shore up the strata of Americans who are holding on by their fingernails.
So, take heart. If Seattle is dying, or even just sick, we have the medicine. We just need the commensurate courage to administer it.
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
Read the full Nov. 6 - 12 issue.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice since 1994. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.