Moving Beyond Encampments (or why Pathways Home is mostly a good move)

I am hopeful that we might be done with talk about encampments for awhile. If everyone is willing to cast aside credit-taking, we are in a good position for a more humane approach to sweeps in Seattle. I'm sure the fight will boil up again after budget season - and whether to codify into the SMC how we treat folks living in tents, but on the whole, the new system is a huge step. 

We still are a city polarized on this issue. There are still folks who seem to think that people choose to be homeless. Folks that ignore the data that shows a completely different reality when we look at initial causes of homelessness. And yes - there remain some folks who are in the throes of addiction, and this may be more prominent among those who are chronically homeless. As I've said before - when I have a bad day, I go home and have a glass or two or wine (or a couple beers). I can't imagine what it's like living without safe shelter, especially during the cold and wet months. But I can empathize with self-medicating. 

BUT - now is the time we get to talk about the next steps we are taking as a city and region to address homelessness. Continuing to spend time arguing about why folks are living in tents is time that could be better spent on moving people from tents to stable housing.

Enter the Pathways Home Initiative. With a focus on identifying and moving folks from homeless to house, adopting Housing First, and recognizing that each person and family requires an individualized approach, Pathways Home is a huge step in the right direction. 

There are some valid concerns about funding priorities, particularly with moving away from transitional housing and toward rapid rehousing. As I read the proposal, there appears to be room to continue transitional housing, but emphasis being placed on identifying individuals and families that would benefit from rapid rehousing vouchers in the private market. Erica C. Barnett has a fantastic write-up on this over at The C Is For Crank. Notably, a major barrier to rapid rehousing being successful in the Seattle area is the cost of housing in the private market. What is working in areas where the average cost for a one-bedroom is less than half of what it is in Seattle is basically the equivalent of an apples to oranges comparison. 

That said, if there are households that don't require the full wrap-around services of transitional housing, this is an opportunity to better target limited funding and serve more individuals and families. While we are facing the possibility of Democrats retaking the U.S. and State Senates, actual funding increases for affordable housing from the Federal and State level are going to take time. 

As noted above, one of the biggest obstacles that we will see for rapid rehousing to be successful in the Puget Sound region is skyrocketing rents. While we hear about this issue loudest in Seattle, it is a regional issue. We are seeing more and more good jobs coming to our region, but we are not keeping pace with housing for folks moving to our region. Unsurprisingly, that is causing what would historically be "naturally" affordable housing - older units - to spike in rent, and home ownership is becoming further and further out of reach for so many.

Displacement is a real risk that we see with significant new development. New construction is not designed to be affordable. In Seattle, we are taking significant steps to get some affordability out of new development. Whether through the Multi-Family Tax Exemption (MFTE) for workforce housing (80% Area Median Income (AMI)), or commercial linkage plus Mandatory Housing Affordability, combined with public investment, we are creating and in position to preserve homes that are affordable to workers at 60% or below AMI, as well. Our city is taking pretty bold steps to address and mitigate displacement

Displacement is also a real risk we see if we do nothing. It is not just due to new construction. One area where rents are continuing to move up something fierce in the region are existing multi-family units. People are moving to Seattle. That's something that cannot be stopped. Absent housing to cover the influx of new residents, existing units will see their rents go up. As a society, we have decided that housing as a commodity is acceptable, and this is the result. 

While there have been calls for rent control, the reality is that we won't see that happen anytime soon. Instead, we must acknowledge that we need more housing, and more housing types. If we are going to pin more fees on developers (not a bad thing), then we have to be cognizant of Dolan v. City of Tigard, and the series of court rulings regarding the trade-off governments must give when requiring impact fees (and, let's be honest - MHA is an impact fee of a sort). 

The University District is the current ground zero for this potential move. Just this week, the Mayor's office - with support of seven council members - added additional rules and fees associated with the rezoning proposed for the U-District. While there continue to be concerns expressed against allowing for taller buildings right around the Brooklyn Ave light rail station, the fact that the station is opening means, without requirements otherwise or a plan to mitigate displacement, folks are going to be priced out of the U-District. 

With leadership from Council Member Rob Johnson and Mayor Ed Murray, we are actually seeing a plan put into motion that will have a positive mitigation impact. Combining Housing Levy, Housing Trust Fund, linkage fee, and MHA dollars, with a focus on preserving multifamily housing in and near the U-District, we can move forward to build the housing that new residents need, while preserving and growing the affordable stock for low and moderate income folks who are just as important to the fabric of our communities. 

This extends to small businesses, as well. Will commercial rents increase with more people living and working in the U-District? Probably. One of the best ways to counter that is through increased foot traffic. Here we will see a great opportunity for the Office of Economic Development to provide additional support to ensure that the small businesses along the Ave and surrounding streets continue to thrive. 

There remain additional steps that should be taken to ensure livability. Public spaces, design standards that maintain walkability (which may mean taller, skinnier buildings), and personalized support for those most at risk of homelessness during transitional phases of development should be considered in the overall planning of the U-District. 

But what happens if we do nothing? The displacement risk is even greater. Rents will go up. And the landlords that are choosing to not increase - or only increase a little bit year over year - aren't going to live forever. By implementing MHA - which must include height increases - and planning concurrently with MFTE and Housing Levy funds, units that will be affordable for generations will be produced, as opposed to existing units losing their affordability.

Pathways Home is going to require we do something to stabilize rents generally, and create more rent-restricted units of housing. And part of doing something means ensuring that enough homes are being built for new residents, allowing for enough to be built and preserved for low-income residents. 

The next hearing on the U-District proposal is on November 16. Learn more about the proposal, and think about what you think should be part of the plan. Then commit to either attending and testifying, or writing your council member. 

Ultimately, the solution to our homelessness crisis and affordability crisis is so multi-faceted that there is no silver bullet. But there is silver buckshot, and with an eye on social justice and housing justice, the plans our city moves forward with can make a very positive impact on affordability, having a direct impact on homelessness.