by Gennette Cordova
We all want less homelessness.
Some people believe that housing should be a basic human right. Others prefer that poverty in their city be out of their line of vision. Counter to narratives centered around addiction and mental illness often spun by The Seattle Times’ editorial board, the newspaper recently acknowledged that the cause of our city’s rampant homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. Rather than debating the morality of reasons rooted in compassion, the shamefulness of reasons based on aesthetics, or the virtue of rationale landing somewhere in between, we can build solutions based on the understanding that tackling homelessness will require us to do something about Seattle’s skyrocketing housing costs.
An increasing number of people are in danger of losing their homes due to exorbitant home prices, stagnant wages, yearslong housing voucher waitlists, and the pandemic-induced recession exacerbating the problem. The result is clear and definite throughout the city and the human cost is devastating. Every year, more people are living outside, sharply elevating their risk of illness, exposure to extreme heat and cold, and being subjected to sexual assault and other forms of violence.
This problem is not confined to our city. According to recent reporting on homelessness by The New York Times, shelter waitlists across the country are doubling, and in some cases tripling, this year. Rent is increasing at its fastest rate in nearly 50 years, leading to an eruption in housing instability. In Seattle, about 100,000 households are paying more than 30% of their income for housing, with many spending over half of their entire income to keep a roof over their heads.
The rent burdens are not sustainable. Communities are being displaced and neighborhoods are homogenizing. As housing costs continue to crush people and families and homelessness swells, we’ll inevitably see an emphasis on managing the optics of “public safety.” This means pouring more time, money, and manpower into criminalizing and disappearing visible poverty. In the last year, we’ve taken resources from sexual assaut investigations to ramp up violent, ineffective encampment sweeps.
We must pursue an innovative plan of action to address these issues, one of which Seattle voters will soon be able to vote on: social housing.
Cities outside of the U.S. have adopted social housing models, keeping housing costs permanently affordable at social housing sites and giving tenants more control over their housing, through citywide renters commission and renter majority boards. Cities like Vienna, Austria, which have a population comparable to King County, have solved homelessness by implementing a strong social housing program.
House Our Neighbors! (HON) is close to wrapping up a 20-day dash, ending on Thursday, Aug. 11, to get 5,000 more valid signatures to put social housing measure Initiative 135 on the ballot in February. Our current housing market views housing as a commodity. Social housing promotes cultural and socioeconomic diversity in cities and supports the idea that housing is a human right.
Despite the Housing Development Consortium (HDC) coming out against I-135, two of its prominent members, Solid Ground and the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), have publicly endorsed it. HON cochair Tiffani McCoy has suggested the HDC’s investor, bank, and profit developer members have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo that allows them to profit greatly from the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). Mayor Harrell recently announced that Seattle is spending $173 million in its 2022 budget to tackle homelessness, a 125% increase over the last four years. As little of that money as possible should go to those irresponsibly focused on profiting off of people’s need to be sheltered.
If the primary cause of homelessness is deeply unaffordable housing, bringing social housing up to scale in the city has the potential to stop the pipeline into homelessness. Proponents of social housing have stressed that this is a “yes, and…” solution. Solving homelessness will require multipronged approaches including current affordable housing and behavioral health support strategies. For instance, the initiative doesn’t expand permanent supportive housing or manage casework. The point of the initiative is not to duplicate the work of entities like the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, but to work in tandem with existing efforts.
It is time for a radical reassessment of our ideas around housing because it’s morally right and necessary to curb the rampant profiteering that’s inflaming the housing affordability crisis.
We all want less homelessness. Passing Initiative 135 and funding social housing in Seattle will add a much-needed layer to the overall solution to this complex issue. No later than February, the onus is on us — as members of our communities — to affirm that all people deserve housing they can afford and that major cities shouldn’t be exclusive to people of a certain socioeconomic status.
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📸 Featured Image: Photo by Puttachat Kumkrong/Shutterstock.com
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