As a service provider, my lived experience of homelessness aids my ability to connect with the people I serve. It also makes it impossible for me to ignore when narratives about homelessness contradict those experiences.
One such narrative is that ending homelessness requires us to build more affordable housing. I recall frequently walking by vacant apartments and homes and wondering to myself, “Why can’t I stay there?”
I decided to determine whether we really need to build more housing to end homelessness in King County. If so, what would that cost? I also wanted to know what it would cost to place every person experiencing homelessness into King County’s currently vacant and available market-rate housing for a full year.
Do We Need to Build More Housing?
According to the Regional Homelessness Authority, there are 40,800 people experiencing homelessness in King County. A recent report from Challenge Seattle indicates the homeless rate in King County surged 42% over the last five years — despite a 21% annual increase in funding for homeless services over that period. According to the most recent census data, there are 961,473 housing units in King County. Only 908,019 are occupied, leaving over 53,000 housing units vacant.
That’s more than enough vacant places to house everyone experiencing homelessness in King County, but not affordably by a long shot. The average median monthly rent per household in King County is $1,695. And in the city limits of Seattle where homelessness is highest, the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment is $2,418. Meanwhile, between 2014 and now, the annual number of available low-income units has dropped 17%, a number that’s been steadily dropping since 1997.
Can We Afford to House Everyone at Market Rate?
Market rate units at the median rent amount in King County equate to a baseline of $20,340 annually per household. If every person experiencing homelessness in the county was provided a rental subsidy valued at this amount, the total cost would be $829,872,000.
For the sake of this argument, I am not factoring in household composition, which shows that 17% of people experiencing homelessness are families with children, and 12% are youth and young adults. This would reduce that total cost significantly by reducing the number of units needed.
This seems like a lot of money at first glance. But according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, Seattle alone collectively spends more than $1 billion fighting homelessness every year.
Can We Afford to Build the Affordable Housing We Need?
Building the amount of affordable housing required by the current narrative would be even more costly than our current spending.
King County Department of Community and Human Service’s cost model estimates it will cost $20 billion to construct/preserve, operate, and service 44,000 affordable homes at 0-50% Area Median Income (AMI) between 2019 and 2024.
These numbers don’t even account for the disparities caused by developers utilizing the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTCP) who self-report their construction costs “in good faith,” as they are not required to verify those costs to receive reimbursement. Disparities like this are due to the same misinterpretation of the issue and the data.
Will it Work?
Housing First policies aim to offer unconditional, permanent housing as quickly as possible to people experiencing homelessness. Supportive services are provided after housing rather than moving people through different “levels” of housing to assess their readiness.
Providing subsidies for market rentals would reduce the concentration of poverty-related crime and health disparities by integrating people into healthy communities that model healthy social norms rather than setting them aside in designated low-income housing developments. It would also provide frequently marginalized children access to better schools, increasing opportunities for families to escape generational poverty.
Is it Fair?
But why would we just hand people the keys to market-rate homes?
Well, for one, because the government is ultimately responsible for raising the acceptable threshold of citizenry far enough to keep people from seeping out of the bottom of our society and into our streets.
The fundamental justification for the existence of government is to provide its citizens with the safety and security that, as individuals, they cannot effectively provide on their own.
It’s a social contract that requires us to give up a portion of our freedom by obeying the laws that we collectively put in place in exchange for the safety of our families, the protection of our property, and the security of our progress in life.
Yet it is evident that individuals experiencing homelessness are systematically denied these rights. They live in a completely different reality, where the government requires them to follow the law without being provided anything in return. They are told to move on, go away, don’t lie down, don’t sit down, don’t set up a tent there, get out of town, this is private property, this is public property, and given no chance to breathe or gather their voices in protest.
The people in this Faustian bargain have attempted to reject society’s laws, as society has rejected them. With every reason to believe they will not be allowed back in, they have every right to do so.
We have been telling ourselves the wrong story – Housing First is an evidence-based practice. It clearly indicates that people require the safety and security of permanent housing to thrive, and we have plenty of it.
We have been keeping our heads in the sand regarding this crisis’s true scale and degree of cruelty for long enough. It has cost us millions of dollars and thousands of lives to ignore the fact that the solution is readily available to us.
Our legal and political institutions are failing to protect the rights of their citizens. The fact that homelessness still exists is a visual representation of that failure.
The burden of homelessness is theirs to solve. The realization that the state is failing to deliver on this central claim at the heart of the shared meanings constituting our political communities is a cause for shame and a call for action from all of us.