Homelessness is often referred to by those in power as a “complex issue.” While each individual’s experience with homelessness is indeed multifaceted and unique, homelessness is solved by giving people homes to live in. The city of Seattle has paid consultants, organized tables and workgroups, tried technology-driven solutions and conducted countless reports on the drivers of our crisis. However, if we are ever actually going to address the fact that thousands of people sleep outdoors every night in one of the richest cities in the world, the city must quite simply build housing for every person in our city. This does not mean market-rate housing — this means treating housing as a human right and committing to building deeply affordable and social housing to meet the needs of all our neighbors. It is past time we joined cities and countries across the world in investing deeply in social housing!
Social housing refers to the creation of government-owned municipal housing, available to all residents regardless of income level. This is housing created with the sole intention of housing people — not making a profit. Social housing can be seen around the world, where it provides a structural and effective model for the right of every person to have access to shelter.
In Vienna, city government-owned social housing makes up 25 percent of the city’s housing stock and houses around 60 percent of the city’s population. Rent is tightly regulated to ensure that no resident spends more than 20 percent to 25 percent of their income on housing. In Seattle, half of all very low-income households (households making between 0 and 30 percent of area median income) rent at market rate, which results in these households paying 60 percent or more of their income on rent. Social housing is crucial for our low- and no-income neighbors, who are being pushed to the brink and frequently into homelessness by the for-profit housing market.
In Singapore, close to 80 percent of residents live in government-owned social housing, which the country’s Housing and Development board sells directly to residents on 99-year leases, made accessible through government-funded grants and subsidies. This creates long-term and generational housing stability, with homeownership rates reaching over 90 percent. Building large-scale housing will ensure that generations of Seattle residents have housing stability and security.
We are in housing and homelessness crises because the private market — enabled by and in collaboration with government — has created a system that treats housing as a commodity and not the essential human need that it is. In order to begin to actually address our crises, both in Seattle and across the country, housing must be decommodified and taken off the free market. In Seattle, the free housing market has created untenable conditions for poor and working class people trying to live in the city, with the average worker needing to work over 60 hours a week to be able to afford the median monthly cost of rent — and this number is significantly higher for workers living on minimum wage. We can no longer leave the need for housing to the whims of the free market. Simply put, the city of Seattle needs to stop relying on the private market to meet our housing needs.
Our vision? We must fund large-scale social housing by taxing large businesses and corporations. We need to start viewing housing as a human right, not as a privilege. We need to keep city land in city hands and implement a long-term plan to acquire and build social housing for all. These buildings should use and be built with green energy and union labor. We need to categorically reject the free market and the trickle-down, economic-driven “solutions” popularized by Ronald Reagan and normalized by governments and businesses at all levels. The private market is not going to solve our housing crisis. It is our responsibility, as the residents of Seattle who care about the housing, homelessness and climate crises, to put forward a bold vision for social, publicly-owned housing, and we already have countless examples from all parts of the globe from which to build. Let’s house our neighbors and build social housing for all!
Read more of the Oct. 27 - Nov. 2, 2021 issue.