With recent newspaper headlines such as “Homeless crisis in plain sight”, it’s clear that Seattle’s “Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness” has failed. With ambitious and clearly articulated goals of virtually ending the problem by 2014, no more tent cities or encampments and the expectation that some shelters would close, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion. Over this period Seattle and King County local governments have spent almost half a billion dollars (adjusted for inflation) trying to solve this chronic issue. New approaches are needed and current policies need to be reexamined.
It’s perhaps surprising then that as March and the end of Ten Year Plan period approaches, the recommendations we’re hearing are for more of the same. Rather than shuttering tent cities, Mayor Ed Murray is calling for additional ones. His Emergency Task Force in December recommended building on current programs, including additional spending, the creation of new shelters and building housing units. It’s little wonder that when the task force was convened, Real Change founder and homeless advocate Tim Harris said he was willing to “suspend disbelief and hope for the best“.
In spite of its shortcomings, one thing the Ten-Year Plan got right was describing the problem of homelessness. It distinguished between “people who face short-term, unanticipated hardship” and those who “have long-term disabilities or chronic health issues that require ongoing support to maintain stability and a productive life”.
For the first group of people, affordability is the biggest issue. Basic economics tells us that the quantity of housing supplied at a certain price depends on supply and demand. Homelessness represents excess demand for housing of a certain price or insufficient income to afford the lowest priced housing.
In Seattle, the supply of low priced housing not meeting demand is the result of a number of factors. Excessive zoning and building codes at the state and local level have increased construction costs. And an increased supply of alternative dwellings including shelters, tent cities and illegal camps further reduce the incentives for developers to construct low cost housing.
Insufficient income stems from a lack of entry level jobs for the homeless and an underperforming economy relative to its potential. Increased minimum wages are great for those who have and are able to keep their jobs. However, for the out of work and unskilled they are not only of no help, but job opportunities that would exist at lower rates of pay are no longer created. Ever increasing local taxes and fees further reduce income available for housing.
Compare Seattle’s record on homelessness with that of Houston, which is famous for its lack of regulation of land use and liberal building and zoning codes. The number of homeless in Houston has dropped every year since 2011 and in 2014 was 37% below the 2011 count. Over the same time period, Seattle’s homeless numbers grew 24% and 2015’s count recorded another increase.
On a per capita basis, Houston has about half the number of homeless as Seattle and its economic growth rate in recent years has been a leader in the nation. Developers have been able to build affordable housing solutions and its solid and consistent economic performance has created job opportunities that have turned lives around.
For the homeless with long-term disabilities or chronic health issues, different approaches are needed and Seattle has a number of great providers working with many of them. But as other commentators have pointed out, there’s a lack of accountability for the money the city is spending and leaders pushing for rigorous performance targets have been unable to get them implemented.
Seattle’s policies for reducing homelessness have failed. Its building and zoning codes are holding back development of housing solutions the homeless need. And its economic policies are restricting the growth needed to deliver jobs and opportunities for the poorest and least skilled among us. If we truly care about the homeless, we need to stop advocating more of the same.
Cross posted at Sound Politics.