A friend of mine Jason Hahn who I’ve met in the last couple years “in politics” wrote a short little post called “Shameless in Seattle”. A short quote because a longer one would be the entire post:
Today I read in the Seattle Times that there are 4,280 school-age children living in homelessness in Seattle. This is 45% more than when our city leaders supposedly declared a homelessness emergency in 2015. I say supposedly not because they didn’t really declare it but because they didn’t really do anything about it.
If a natural disaster struck West Seattle and 3 years later we still had almost 5,000 children living without a stable roof over their heads would we be ok with that? No, of course not. But here we are 3 years and countless millions of dollars later and kids are still homeless.
Jason is writing specifically about all the homeless kids in our schools but it’s no less shameless how we’ve responded to the issue in general.
We were also without shame when a year ago Murray floated a property tax to help with homelessness and withdrew it almost immediately due to outrage. Always our concern is that people who have homes might be hurt “too much” by a new tax to help those without. We can just use the money we have more efficiently, supposedly, even though the prices of homes have doubled and tripled since I moved to Seattle but what we spend on housing support has not (this is me wild ass summarizing by looking at city budget and Seattle Housing Authority documents and other things, but it’s clear we haven’t spent to keep up with actual costs to support the poorest). Every new property tax proposal, even though fundamentally if you own property you’re in a more stable place than a person literally without a home at all, is met with resistance even though it’s the only revenue source we have that isn’t horribly regressive.
Last Friday, the city council released its proposal for an “employee hours” or “payroll tax” (it’s a little complicated but call it $500 per full time employee for businesses that take in at least $20 million in Seattle). It’s been proposed to primarily help address our housing issues. A few days before, keeping in mind the tax was tabled last fall to let more stakeholders get their input in, Mayor Durkan sent them a letter with a laundry list of elements that the tax needs to have for her to support it. She could have gotten that to the city council months ago or even more than a few days. The letter reads to me as a way to have it both ways: of course she supports a tax, but not unless it does all these things, some of which won’t really be possible to address quickly or in this same piece of legislation.
Also last week, curiously, Mayor Durkan proposed a unified property tax levy for education which while it is replacing expiring levies, it actually increases funding. Why do I even mention the education levy? Aside from the obvious issue (what about those 4,280 kids who are homeless?), I predict this property tax levy, even though it presents an increase won’t be as controversial as Murray’s to address homelessness. The reality I’ve been seeing in Seattle for years is that “everyone” wants to do something about homelessness and affordability issues, but always “not that”. Here is a laundry list (off the top of my head!) of changes around homelessness and housing affordability that have resulted in strong opposition:
- Not sweeping people or providing sanctioned encampments. It turns out that if you’re homeless, making you lose all your belongings and be in contact with the cops disrupts your ability to stabilize your life enough to make progress.
- Finding a way to let people live in cars legally (and sanitarily).
- Providing sanitary services such as toilets and trash service basically anywhere in the city for homeless people or even just free to the public instead of begged from a coffee shop barista. Those without homes (and indeed anyone) are apparently expected to find the few “public” toilets with limited hours spread very thinly, even downtown.
- Any kind of zoning change that would allow more kinds of housing. Single family homes are the most expensive kind of housing but we reserve about 2/3 of the city for them.
- Building affordable housing near or in any single family zone, especially the wealthier and whiter ones. The Ft. Lawton project has been in process for literally a decade.
- Any housing project (affordable or not, regardless of how close it is to transit) that doesn’t have enough parking.
- Housing projects (public or private) that don’t have enough affordable housing set aside (this is nearly every facebook post in my neighborhood groups when it’s discovered the MFTE program a project is using is only going to have so many units that are “affordable” even though building more market rate should also help).
- Housing projects that set too high an affordability threshold. If a project only sets aside for 80% of median income, some will oppose because it’s not 50% of median.
- The current “city-wide” MHA upzone plans that only affects 6% of the city which has a huge group filing lawsuits on the EIS to delay it as much as possible.
- Liberalization of rules to builds backyard cottages.
- Property tax levies to build more affordable housing.
- … and of course the new head tax itself.
We say we want to help with homelessness and housing affordability. But when anyone proposes ways to address it that take the reality seriously and allocate serious money to it or propose serious policy changes, too many people find reasons why it will hurt some other group (usually that have homes) too much or won’t work or will “hurt business”. We want to support folks without homes, but never in our own neighborhoods. There’s always a reason it should be somewhere else in town or not at all or not right now.
“Yes, we need to do something but not THIS” said year after year actually just means “no, let’s do nothing”. Now, obviously in any one case, people often have good intentions and reasons for their opposition. But if somebody always has “perfectly good reasons”, collectively we do nothing (or not nearly enough) and we find ourselves where we are. We each need to be saying “yes, and” even when it might be a little uncomfortable.