With the ever growing rent prices, displacement and the homelessness crisis in the city, Seattleites are waiting to see permanent solutions to these issues.
Almost a year since Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency over homelessness, a lot of obstacles are still preventing thousands of people from being able to afford a roof over their heads.
With those issues in mind, the League of Women Voters hosted an Imagine Abundant Housing forum on Thursday, Nov. 3, at the First Baptist Church on First Hill. The room was packed with concerned residents of all backgrounds — homeless, low-income and even those working for the high-tech companies that have become part of the problem of the skyrocketing prices.
Cary Moon, an urban planning activist who was granted the title of “stealth activist extraordinaire” by the Stranger, moderated the evening.
Four panelists were invited to share their insights into the affordable housing situation and offer solutions to address the problem. Timothy Harris, founding director of Real Change, Steve Walker, director of housing for the city of Seattle, District 1 Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold and Low Income Housing Institute executive director Sharon Lee presented their views on addressing the housing crisis.
To kick off the forum, Moon asked the panelists to introduce themselves and explain what don’t people need to understand about Seattle’s affordability crisis.
“The city for the last couple of years, in particular under the leadership of the mayor, has been struggling with and working hard to define what does growth with affordability look like, what does growth with equity looks like,” Walker said. “Addressing the issue of affordability, so that all people have an opportunity to live in Seattle, isn’t just about housing.”
He continued to highlight Seattle’s latest initiatives to address the problem, mentioning the passing of the second housing levy that will raise $290 million for constructing and maintaining affordable housing and homelessness prevention. Walker also mentioned the mayor’s latest initiative to convene a stakeholder group, Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which included renters, for-profit and nonprofit developers and local housing experts. The meeting generated 65 recommendations to create resources for affordable housing.
Herbold brought in statistics to show attendees the scope of the problem the city is facing. According to her, single-income earners have to make at least $25 an hour to afford rent, and there are currently about 45,000 people paying more than half of their income for rent and potentially facing homelessness. While in 2015 the city was able to house 637 people, another 600 became newly homeless.
“The good news though is that through our levy we build or preserve over 300 units every year, so that’s great,” she said. “But also shows how much more we have to do as far as addressing people’s basic needs who are sleeping outside every night and addressing it as a public safety emergency.”
Lee shared her struggles with acquiring land and permits to build affordable housing. One of the initiatives LIHI is taking in a partnership with Nickelsville to battle the homelessness crisis is building 8-foot-by-12-foot tiny houses to temporarily house people and families. With dozens of people dying from homelessness every year in King County, Lee believes providing safety to people living on the streets is of foremost importance.
“I’m all about building buildings, but I think it’s very important that we actually deal with emergency crisis response, so that people stay alive,” Lee said.
Harris addressed the fact that a majority of the homeless population are people of color and veterans. He said public policies the city has in place fail to support rapid changes in the housing market.
“There is a whole shift to Rapid Re-Housing, which provide vouchers to people facing homelessness between three to nine months, by the end of which period those people are supposed to be sustainable enough to find a place of their own,” Harris said. “But the policy does not account for the rent prices, and those people have to get miles away from the city to be able to use these vouchers.”
Following introductions, Moon switched to talking about solutions, asking each panelist to weigh in on possible fixes to the issues Seattle is facing today.
Herbold offered three potential solutions, including making people safe first by providing shelters to people rather than ending homelessness a priority, having a system in place for families with children to make sure no child spends a night on the street and preserving and expanding affordable housing.
Lee joined the councilmember in supporting providing shelter to families with kids, particularly during the upcoming winter temperatures. She added the city is in need of expanding the shelter program, including the continuation of the Tiny Houses program and allocating general fund money to affordable housing.
“We need the county government to step up and come up with tools to help solve the problem,” Walker added. “Not one tool could ever address all the issues at hand.”
Harrison brought up Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s proposal to build 1,000 affordable homes with $160 million of city funds originally planned for replacing the Seattle Police Department’s North Precinct facility. He was later joined by representatives of the coalition to build 1,000 homes who presented Herbold with a petition to sign in support of the proposal.
Herbold declined to sign the petition at the forum, saying while she supports the spirit of the proposal, there are mechanisms in place to access the money that she doesn’t support.
“In order to access a portion of this proposal, it would require the city council for the next six years to have a 3/4 vote to divert $10 million from the transportation money,” Herbold said. “I feel like the voters in the city have been generous with supporting the levies, and I fear that if the council was to hurt the will of the people, we may never pass another levy of any sort in this city.”
The councilmember added she’s working on a smaller-scale proposal of her own and will present it once she has the minimum necessary support. The proposal would rely on reestablishing a growth fund the city used to have in the ‘90s that would dedicate a portion of general fund revenue toward housing.
“We haven’t looked at the economic cost of homelessness,” Lee said. “When locals, workers and tourists come to downtown, they say, ‘I’m never coming here again.’ There are costs to emergency service and police that, if we ended homelessness, our prosperity would actually increase phenomenally. It’s in our economic interest to address the issue.”
Other concerns expressed by the public included the lack of city-owned property, especially community centers, that is used for shelter during the winter months, how to involve large employers in addressing the issues with rent prices and recommendations made to the council to get rid of eight transitional housing programs to move those funds toward Rapid Re-Housing.
With all the issues raised and concerns heard, the panelists came to a common conclusion, which is the city still has a long way to go in solving the problem but it’s moving toward a right direction.
“One of the best things about it is that with the mayor’s office and the council, we have everyone rowing in the same direction,” Walker said. “We may not agree on every single issue, but conceptually we are all moving in the same direction.”