Solutions to homelessness: the problem is not intractable


Homelessness: a direct result of conscious decisions by local electeds to promote runaway development at the expense of our existing stock of low income housing

  • written by John V. Fox 

We’ve said it before in this column: the city could double rates of new residential construction in Seattle and that still would not bring rents down. We warned it would only serve to accelerate the loss of our existing stock of affordable units to demolition and speculation, drive up rents for poor and working people, and cause more homelessness, displacement and gentrification.

It gives us no joy to say, “we told you so”, because that’s what already is happening in our city. In the last three years, new construction has reached record levels. We’ve averaged 7500 units since 2013 and there are projects in the pipeline now for construction of another 15,000 units. Over the same period, vacancy rates remained low and rents rose annually 7-8 percent per year, highest in the country among larger cities in 2014.

According to the recent annual count, homelessness has jumped by 19 percent.  Despite nearly doubling what we spend on homelessness and the eleventh year of a ten-year plan to end it, there now are over 4500 sleeping on our streets countywide each night after all the 3000 or so shelter beds are full.

We could upzone more and build more expensive market rate stuff, but that would not bring prices down.  In fact we’ve already upzoned the hell out of our communities, nearly doubling our zoned capacity since 2005 and building at record rates. But rather than bringing prices down, it’s had the exact opposite effect.

The Mayor’s so called Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda or “HALA plan” is top heavy with developer subsidies, tax breaks, and giveaways. Upzone some more – the central component of HALA – and it simply is a blueprint for more displacement and homelessness across Seattle (not to mention the added price taxpayers will pay for the new infrastructure demanded by more growth).

If I was “Mayor-for-a-day” and wanted to make an immediate and profound impact on the problem of homelessness, I’d suspend the HALA upzone plan, and call for more regulation of the market, not less.  I’d start by submitting a measure to Council calling for adoption of an immediate moratorium on demolition of existing affordable apartment buildings. There’s more than enough capacity under our existing zoning code to do that while still accommodating reasonable rates of growth.

The moratorium would remain in place for at least 18 months until specific proposals could be adopted that ensure developers replace one for one what they remove at comparable price and until developers pay impact fees to cover their share of the costs of infrastructure – for streets, roads, schools, and parks – their projects require.

I’d also propose use of $250 to $500 million in the city’s unused bonding capacity and authorize creation of a commission to use half of those dollars to acquire existing unsubsidized low cost apartments while the moratorium is in place and before they are sold to speculators and developers.  Emphasis also would be placed on turning the privately owned buildings that are acquired into tenant run and managed coop’s and land trusts so they could remain in perpetuity as low income units.  I’d also use the rest of these funds for construction of low cost units for homeless families.

To suggest that by building more, simply giving away the keys to our city to market rate developers, and that over time housing will miraculously “trickle down” to the poor is a vicious myth. It’s the moral and ethical equivalent of telling thousands of seniors, low income, working people, and people of color now being displaced to “let them eat cake”.  And it renders bankrupt any claim that our city has any real interest in stemming homelessness or overcoming racial and economic disparities growing in our city.

John V. Fox for Outside City Hall and the Seattle Displacement Coalition – for a comprehensive list of effective housing and homeless strategies click on the Community Housing Caucus Report here:


About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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