Why the 10-year plan didn’t end homelessness

by John V. Fox and Carolee Colter, Seattle Displacement Coalition – January 29, 2015

Almost a decade ago, we wrote a column criticizing the “ten year plan to end homelessness“. Launched in 2005 with great fanfare, the plan committed to dramatically increase spending on low-income housing, overnight shelter and other homeless assistance programs.  A “Committee to End Homelessness” was established to implement the plan, run primarily by elected city and county officials and big shots in the non-profit sector and corporate giving world.

While we appreciated the increased attention and dollars pledged to the growing problem, the plan lacked any commitment or set of policies to prevent the continued loss of our existing stock of low-income housing to the forces of redevelopment.

Even if the plan fulfilled its goal to add 9000 low cost units countywide over the period, for every one unit created, three to four units would be lost to demolition, condo conversion, and increased rents. Given that Committee membership included many with ties to developer interests, it was unlikely the plan ever would address the issue of displacement.

Ten years later, we have to add this story to our growing “ we told you so” file. Since 2005, the ten-year plan takes credit for adding about 6000 housing units countywide.  But in Seattle alone, over the same period, over 6500 low-income apartments have been demolished, another 3000 were lost to condominium conversion and at least another 6000 lost to speculative sale and rent increases. Thousands more were lost in the rest of the county to these forces.

Today homelessness has reached record levels–up 13 percent in 2013 and up another 20 percent last year.  On any given night, there are 12000 homeless people, county-wide, including about 3000 sleeping in overnight shelters, 3000 in a longer term “transitional” housing, another 3700 counted on the streets in the annual shelter providers’ “one night count”, and at least another 3000 we estimate that go uncounted.

County and city leaders won’t acknowledge their plan has failed and to this day refuse to link the problem to the continuing loss of existing units to redevelopment and gentrification.  Instead they’ve extended their plan out indefinitely, promising great strides in the future. Yet Seattle and King County together now spend over $45 million annually on homeless programs. That’s enough to hand each of those homeless identified in the “one night count” an annual $15,000 check.

We are not saying stop committing these dollars for low-income housing and more shelter beds.  But we’re simply “shoveling sand against the tide” if displacement-induced housing losses are not addressed.

Mayor Murray seems to be making the same mistake. He pledged to come up with a bold new plan to for affordable housing in our city and created a housing advisory task force charged with recommending new strategies. Unfortunately, the task force is top-heavy with corporate, downtown, and developer interests and conspicuously short of neighborhood or tenant advocates or the homeless themselves.

The Mayor will have to look elsewhere for real solutions.  For starters here are our ideas:

  • Require developers who demolish low-income housing to replace one-for-one the units they remove and at comparable price.  This should apply in every discretionary land use decision such as where a developer seeks an upzone, master plan permit, alley vacation, air rights or acquisition of public land.  Impose a citywide moratorium on demolitions until this is adopted.
  • Pass a “Right of First Notice” ordinance requiring all owners of existing lower-income apartment buildings to first offer them for sale to non-profits representing the affected tenants before they put the property up for sale to speculators and developers.  Impose a moratorium on further upzones until this is adopted.
  • Create a Housing Preservation Commission to inventory our remaining stock of privately owned low-income buildings at risk of being lost, and then recommend strategies for quick acquisition of these buildings. Consider selective use of the city’s condemnation authority to acquire “at risk” buildings the Commission has prioritized.
  • Inventory unused public lands in Seattle and the County and make them available for low-income housing development. Free land would save millions, stretching public dollars so more units can be built.
  • Identify and create new dedicated sources of funding:
    1. Seattle and King County should issue $600 million in long-term bonds for the development of housing for homeless people, (no more than both governments have done for sports stadiums, parking garages and office buildings.)
    2. Re-establish the Growth Related Housing Fund discontinued by former mayor Greg Nickels. Each year, 20% of the incremental increase in property tax revenue from new construction city-wide should be dedicated to the development of low-income housing. Adopt developer impact fees to replace these revenues that otherwise would have gone into the general fund.
    3. Dedicate 20% of the city’s Real Estate Excise Tax revenue – about $10 million a year – to the production of housing for homeless people.

The Mayor has said he’ll listen to the community, not just his appointed task force.  We hope so or he’ll simply repeat the failures of the ten year plan and past administrations.

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