This week, I’m going out on a limb to assume that, for the sixth time since 1981, the Seattle Housing Levy has comfortably passed. The seven-year, $290 million levy will continue Seattle’s history of putting public resources toward meeting the needs of those with the fewest resources.
The levy is an important piece of addressing Seattle’s affordability crisis, but it falls short of going to the core issue. As noted housing scholar Peter Marcuse has said, “When housing is produced for profit, those who can provide no profit get no housing.”
Happily, through the generosity of Seattle voters, the Housing Levy has offered a limited exception to that rule.
Previous levies have funded more than 12,500 affordable homes, helped more than 900 households purchase a first house and prevented homelessness with emergency rental assistance to 6,500 households at risk of eviction.
Has this been enough? Clearly not.
Homelessness in Seattle nearly doubled over the course of the last 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. As in most cities, our approach to homelessness has rested on the holy trinity of modern homelessness management: housing first, rapid rehousing and coordinated entry.
Housing first gets people inside where they can begin to deal with issues beyond their immediate homelessness. Rapid rehousing works to prevent the trauma of the street by catching people before they fall. Coordinated entry assigns priorities for services based on risk and vulnerability.
Each of these tested strategies is part of the solution. And, at the same time, they are not nearly enough.
And so, we have waiting lists for public housing of five years or more and the standard triage strategies that target resources to those at highest risk.
Over the last decade, these strategies moved about 36,000 people in King County out of homelessness and into housing.
This is something to celebrate, and the Seattle housing levy helped make those successes possible.
And yet, the core issue remains. Housing in a profit driven system simply costs too much, and Seattle has once again overtaken Austin as having fastest rising rents in the nation. One recent report noted that rental costs rose by 11 percent in May.
All Home, the group charged with “making homelessness rare, brief and one-time” in King County has its work cut out for it.
All Home’s strategic plan cites a Journal of Urban Affairs study that documents how, on average, every $100 in increased rent results in a 15 percent increase in urban homelessness.
This means that so long as housing costs skyrocket and full-time work doesn’t pay enough to live on, we can expect local homelessness to increase, however efficient our human services delivery systems and generous our voters may be.
Soon, Mayor Ed Murray will release a report from former Unites States Interagency Council on Homelessness director Barbara Poppe. She is a known quantity, and once threatened former Mayor Mike McGinn and the Seattle City Council with withdrawal of HUD funds if they supported homeless encampment legislation.
I don’t have a crystal ball, but my guess is that Poppe’s report will double down on housing first, rapid rehousing, and coordinated entry, oppose encampments as a harm reduction strategy, and offer little more than lip service to the market forces that drive our crisis.
And I expect that she will support the Murray’s inclination to invest in long-term and preventative strategies at the expense of expanded emergency survival services.
Here’s the dirty secret of homeless funding priorities. If homeless people have opted out of emergency shelter because it’s too crowded, restrictive, chaotic, or misaligned with their actual needs, they don’t count.
If it doesn’t move people out of shelter and into housing, or keep people from entering shelter, then it doesn’t help the numbers.
Unsheltered homeless people are the losers in the funding game that drives policy.
Within this logic, Seattle’s off the grid homeless should stay off the grid, because they just mess up the numbers that attract federal funds.
The housing levy is part of the solution that we need. Seattle should be proud of our history here. But real solutions require a deeper overhaul of our system than the Barbara Poppe’s of the world are capable of imagining.