It’s been 11 years since issuance of a plan to end homelessness in 10 years by the City of Seattle, King County and non-profits. And walking around downtown Seattle or eyeing encampments adjoining I-5 ramps and overpasses, it seems as if homelessness is sharply up. A January 2016 count of the outdoor homeless in King County shows that it is – by almost 20 percent from the year prior.
Things have recently taken a turn for the worse, and the business community is unavoidably concerned about how Seattle is perceived by convention bookers, shoppers, and employers.
Disquieting Findings In ‘The Jungle’
After a late January drug-related shooting that left two dead at a homeless encampment under I-5 near downtown Seattle called “The Jungle,” the city and state did a two day field assessment of conditions there. According to the seattlepi.com, “Not only did officials find open sewers, human waste, hazardous materials and evidence of significant criminal activity, but also an unauthorized population that, for one reason or another, has nowhere else to go, with some living in the area for more than two years.”
The head of the North Seattle Industrial Association, Eugene Wasserman, has written to state lawmakers urging action to prevent fires and explosions from propane tanks stored by the homeless under I-5 for heating.
Don Blakeney, Vice President of Advocacy and Economic Development for the Downtown Seattle Association, says that for visitors to Seattle who don’t experience homelessness at home, seeing people living on the streets can be “jarring” and “raise questions about the health of the city” and region.
Blakeney adds, “There’s a very real concern around this,” and you could understand how some would say, “this is bad for business.” But he stressed the conversation about homelessness in Seattle-King County in recent years has pivoted and gone deeper.
Business Community Getting More Engaged
“The business community is coming out now, really saying with a loud trumpet, we need affordable housing,” said Blakeney. According to Maud Daudon, President and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, “As Seattle has become one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., housing affordability has become a challenge, and we need to address it immediately so that we can have a diverse, equitable and prosperous city.”
The chamber backs the recommendations of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) which Daudon said, “comprise a strategy to encourage 50,000 more housing units a mix of market-rate units, workforce units, and low-income housing – in Seattle.” One HALA recommendation of note, added Daudon, is an expanded housing levy which could help provide affordable housing, transitional housing and “more effective and accessible mental health services.”
Affordable Rentals Incentive Advancing In Olympia
Related legislation is advancing in Olympia. Substitute Senate Bill 6239 – backed by a host of suburban mayors and bi-partisan sponsors in Olympia – would let cities or counties exempt housing rental owners from property taxes for 15 years if they rent one-quarter of their building’s units to low-income renters at affordable prices. In King County that would be $840 to $1,008 a month for a one-bedroom unit, according to Murray’s office.
The bill cleared the Senate in mid-February and continues to advance through House committees to a likely vote and approval in the House.
Supply-Driven Realtors Remedies
The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors in a recent newsletter voices support for the “Grand Bargain” strategy – one of 65 HALA recommendations. It would create more income-qualified and market rate units in the city. The association also favors more non-traditional “accessory dwelling units” and more urban villages in the city; plus suburban city and King County Comprehensive Plan revisions; and specific suburban annexations.
Responding to the persistent and highly visible presence of the homeless downtown, and to community leaders urging action, Murray last November declared a homelessness state of emergency.
To the $40 million the city already spends annually to combat homelessness, Mayor Murray’s November 2015 emergency declaration provided $5 million more, from sale of city property, for additional shelter, housing, public and behavioral health services and data collection on what works. The city later added another $2.3 million from greater-than-expected real estate excise tax revenues.
Murray’s emergency declaration also called on the state to contribute property for encampments, shelter and housing; to boost homeless housing funding and financing; and to spend more on mental health and substance abuse treatment. The 2005 city-county report prescribed many of the same strategies.
A Franker Acceptance By City of Outdoor Encampments
One thing that’s different now is a franker acceptance of outdoor encampments by the city, which has authorized three of them plus several official safe spaces in industrial lots for homeless in cars. One constant is the roving corps of 70 downtown street ambassadors employed by the DSA’s Metropolitan Improvement District, founded in 1999, and funded by tax assessments on downtown properties. The ambassadors help keep the streets safe although they’re not armed. They also perform human services outreach, streetscape cleaning and maintenance, and more.
State’s Housing Trust Fund has Created 45,000 Affordable Units
New legislation is not all the state is doing. Concrete benefits for the homeless and others have come from the state Housing Trust Fund. In a recent presentation to the House housing panel, the Department of Commerce reported the fund has invested $1 billion since 1989 to create 45,000 affordable housing units – for community organizations, local governments, housing authorities and tribes – serving 70,000 people. Two-thirds of the units were for low-income individuals or seniors; 11 percent were for the homeless; 10 percent for farmworkers and 13 percent for the special needs population.
Biennial appropriations for the state trust fund peaked at $164 million in 2007-09 but were far less in 2015-17 at $77.5 million. The Washington Low Income Housing Institute suggests an additional $10 million to the fund in the state’s 2016 Capital Budget to build another 280 units.
But overall state funds for housing the homeless or nearly homeless are considerably greater than the latest trust fund appropriation, at $172 million in 2014, according to a January 2016 report from the Department of Commerce. Some 55,176 people in Washington were housed in 2014 as a result in emergency shelters, transitional housing, rapid re-housing, homeless prevention units, permanent supportive housing and permanent housing.
Homelessness By The Numbers
Such responses help limit the overall number of homeless to a relatively small proportion of the populace. In Washington, there were 19,419 homeless in 2015, according to HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. That’s almost three-tenths of a percent of the state’s population of just more than seven million.
In 2015, there were an estimated 10,047 total homeless in Seattle and King County, with almost four in 10 or 3,772 unsheltered. The larger figure was almost one-half of one percent of the county’s 2015 population of 2,0523,800. The unsheltered homeless numbers in Seattle-King County come from an annual “one-night count” by volunteers.
There are 564,708 homeless people nationwide with three in 10 or 173,268 “unsheltered” and the rest either in emergency shelters or transitional housing according to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The larger number represents less than two-tenths of one percent of the 2015 U.S. population of 320,090,857.
Among the 564,708 homeless reported by HUD nationally in 2015, several sub-groups were prominently represented: 18.4 percent were severely mentally ill and another 18.4 percent suffered from chronic substance abuse. The chronically homeless were 17 percent; 12 percent were domestic violence victims; and 10.6 percent were youth age 18 to 24, plus their children.