Gen Z is left wondering about what can be done about the homelessness crisis in Seattle. Lacey Robertson asks Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan what actions the city has taken to address it.
The Ave is a student-frequented quirky strip of local restaurants, thrift shops, and dive bars located in Seattle’s University District. It is notoriously grimy and always teeming with interesting characters — like a man dressed up as The Joker in broad daylight or a person walking a ferret on a leash, to name some of my favorite sightings — but most would consider a walk down it a hallmark of the University of Washington student experience.
Last weekend, my friends and I were confronted with the fact that for some Seattle residents, The Ave has become more than a place just to grab pad thai or a cup of coffee. Its streets act as a temporary stopping place for transient homeless Seattlites, and a crystal clear reflection of the houselessness crisis in Seattle was on display for us that day.
Snow was beginning to melt, which created an unsightly mush along the roads. As we continued down towards the cafe, we began to see the sidewalks lined with large mounds of old newspapers, food wrappers, and other unidentifiable materials. These piles, stacked nearly a foot high around groups of people huddled together, were acting as a sort of shelter of warmth for those seeking refuge on the streets.
Now, it is not uncommon to see people living along The Ave, but something about the basic human necessity of a warm shelter being replaced with piles of garbage made what I witnessed especially hard to grapple with. I sat with those images etched in my mind as my friends and I drank our lattes in the insulated coffee shop, and on our walk back home, I found that the trash piles were still there, but with no trace of the individuals who occupied them less than an hour earlier. Are they safe? Where did they go?
Natalie Darling, a second year student at the University of Washington and one of my friends who was with me that day, had a similar experience: “I was really sad to see that the only means for the homeless people to stay warm was covering themselves in trash. I also felt disappointed that the city of Seattle was not taking any real action to help the people on the streets.”
I was bothered knowing that it was likely that patrolling police asked them to relocate. The problem was not actually solved; it was just shielded from being directly in the public’s face.
I began to question how the city had gotten to the point where such a significant portion of its population does not have a stable physical house. What factors are at work specifically in Seattle to cause this crisis?
Years in the making
In recent decades, there has been a rise in the houseless population in the city of Seattle. The crisis seems to have reached an all-time peak, and has become so prevalent that one cannot walk down a street without being confronted with the fact that there is a discrepancy between the resources the city seems to be providing, and the sheer number of people sleeping on the streets rather than a shelter.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan cites the houselessness crisis in the Puget Sound region as being “years in the making” with some of the main contributors being “mental health and addiction, lack of affordable housing, and racial disparities.”
Her last point relating to systemic racism is imperative and can be named as the root of many other problems entrenched into various American institutions. This crisis cannot be covered without addressing the fact that people of color experience houselessness at a disportionately high rate compared to the percentage of the general population.
To combat the consequences of homelessness, Mayor Durkan emphasized to The Pavlovic Today her belief that it is “the City’s obligation to bring as many individuals as possible off the street into safer places.” As part of Seattle’s 2021 budget, she “proposed her plan to open hundreds of new short-term shelter and hoteling options – these facilities will open in early 2021.”
I was happy to hear that aggressive actions were being taken to deal with the symptoms of homelessness, but still was left thinking about what made it so these actions needed to be taken in the first place.
While there are many factors that are critical in explaining what pushes some people to resort to living on the streets, there is a contender unique to Seattle and other similar growing American cities that affects its housing dynamics.
Seattle as an office launchpad
Seattle has become a sort of “satellite office launchpad,” where Silicon Valley giants, like Uber, Snapchat, and Lyft, to name a few, are placing offices. Because of this, the tech boom in Seattle has driven up housing prices exponentially and effectively has limited the amount of affordable housing available. According to Exhibit 1 in Maggie Stringfellow and Dilip Wagle’s McKinsey & Company article on the economics of homelessness, rent increases in Seattle show a strong correlation with the rise in the city’s homeless population.
Although companies like Amazon have created more jobs, what inevitably follows is an exponential rise in housing prices. Since the presence of such high-caliber companies stimulates economic growth within the city, the high housing prices reflect this positive economic stimulation, which is assuming a more affluent market. What is not as readily accounted for as a consequence of this tech boom, however, is how the growing supply of expensive homes creates a smaller portion of King County housing units deemed as affordable.
With this price rise coupled with other pressing issues of improperly treated mental health issues, drug and alcohol addiction, and racial disparities, King County is presented with a situation that leaves many people with homelessness as the only option.
Shelters and other band-aid solutions
Shelters and current measures are temporary solutions to a deep-rooted problem in Seattle and other booming cities across the United States. The University District Youth Center, which is only blocks away from the University of Washington campus, provides a welcoming place for young people experiencing homelessness, and provides resources spanning from warm meals to legal aid and mental health counseling. This is not to say the work being down at this center and others like it is ineffective: quite the opposite, actually.
While the services provided at shelters do alleviate the harsh realities people experiencing homelessness face and are a testament to the good regular citizens can do, my attention still turns back to the companies who have expanded their empires in Seattle.
It seems odd, to say the least, that Seattle is a city where industry giants can build their business, yet there are people asking for money right in front of their corporate offices.
There is space here for billionaires, yet longtime Seattle residents have been pushed to the streets as a reaction to the skyrocketing rent prices, which these billionaires’ have played a role in causing.
The city, although presenting some solutions to the crisis, has taken actions in the past that contradict their progressive promises. In 2018, Seattle police forcibly cleared a homeless encampment under Highway 99 and replaced it with bike racks. This blatant display of anti-homeless architecture is prevalent among other cities like Los Angeles and New York City. This takes form as street vents with spikes to prevent people from laying on them for warm air during harsh winters outside, or benches separated into sections with bars to stop someone from having a place to rest other than the ground, to name a few. Using the city budget to fund these sort of projects is like putting a BandAid on a gaping wound that has been festering for years.
A policy solution targeting big tech
Seattle needs to stop taking reactionary actions to the crisis, and begin to look at the issue at its core to see what is driving the high concentration of homelessness in this city specifically. Shielding the issues from the forefront by forcibly relocating people from the streets and into these so-called city-permitted villages is not addressing the actual causes. Shelters are only temporary alleviations to a problem that is now woven into the establishments within Seattle and other U.S. cities.
Seattle should approach the houselessness crisis by both dealing with it as it is happening, and also by preventing the driving factors of it in the city. Once again, I find that Seattle needs to look towards the correlation between big tech corporate offices settling in Seattle and the increase in housing prices.
Making changes to address the core of the issue, like destigmatizing mental health issues, funding free programs that deal both with addiction and mental health, and restructuring systems that perpetuate racial inequities, are all necessary aspects of preventing homelessness both in Seattle and nationally. Undoing these issues that are generations in the making will take a significant amount of time, but it is essential for real change. If Seattle hones in on the major players of tech companies, the city can begin to see more immediate changes by pinpointing them as a significant contributor to the issue.
Admittedly, I am a college student who is still learning the intricacies of local and federal government policy-making, but it is time Seattle local officials start bolstering the policies surrounding homelessness and housing that have already been implemented by requiring monetary support from the companies in the city.
This could take the form as a requirement of these tech giants, or other similar corporations, to pay a required quarterly due or funnel corporate income tax to a designated state program. Instead of these funds going to a general source in the local government, a fund could be proposed that specifically sets aside the revenue raised for the initiatives that Seattle has begun, like the Multifamily Tax Exemption program, for example, which provides families an additional income and rent-restricted affordable homes.
In a step in the right direction, last year Seattle City Council passed a new tax targeting payroll expenses of tax rates that escalate based on the overall size of the payroll. The tax, which would certainly affect companies like Amazon, is on track to bring in $214.3 million in revenue in 2021, and has loose plans to address homelessness among other pressing issues. The tax would sunset in 20 years, but still does not completely make up for the damage that has already been done with the soaring housing prices.
In a perfect world, I would like to see more initiatives by Seattle-based CEOs to directly address the ways the presence of their companies have shook up the city, specifically middle and lower middle class Americans. I don’t quite know what this kind of accountability looks like, but the new tax is hopeful in that it redirects some of the wealth that has piled at the top into beneficial programs. It’s not the only step Seattle needs to tackle the crisis, though.
Unfortunately, Seattlites are dealing with a horribly regressive tax structure, meaning that low-income taxpayers pay a larger percentage of tax for the income they make compared to high earners who pay a relatively low burden. The new tax on big high-pay companies will help fund initiatives to deal with the consequences of homelessness, but it will take a serious restructuring in order to undo the systems in place that prolong both income inequality and racial disparities.
Despite the alarming portion of the Seattle population that is houseless, the city is still seen as a shining example of a coastal, West Coast hub for the technology industry, and attracts some of the brightest engineers, computer scientists, and other talent from around the globe. But after living here for my first two years of college, I have experienced firsthand the disconnect between these enormously successful companies and the reality of living in Seattle for many. This leaves me questioning John F. Kennedy’s famous aphorism he delivered in a 1963 speech; does a rising tide really lift all boats?