Seattle is in the midst of a homelessness crisis. That's not news. The number of people living unsheltered in the city has been climbing for years. Last year, the mayor and city council allowed tent encampments to open on city-owned land—an unprecedented recognition that a practice long considered illegal is necessary in order to give people somewhere to live safely. Then, as temperatures dropped and an important city council election loomed last November, Mayor Ed Murray declared that Seattle is in a state of emergency because of homelessness.
Even so, discussions about what to do stayed largely in the offices of social-service providers and city hall wonks. That changed over a chaotic four days in late January.
On January 26, five people were shot, two of them killed, in a homeless encampment under I-5 known as "The Jungle." Mayor Murray got the news just after he finished giving a rare televised speech on homelessness. Two days later, 200 people attended a neighborhood meeting at Seattle Pacific University to complain that the city wasn't doing enough to address crime the attendees blamed on homeless people living in RVs. The next morning, a new overnight count of people sleeping in vehicles, doorways, tents, or otherwise unsheltered found a 19 percent increase in the homeless population of King County; Seattle's rose by 4.6 percent. That one-night count did not include those currently residing in homeless shelters or transitional housing.
"This is surely what an emergency looks like," said Alison Eisinger, one of the lead organizers of the count.
All of these stories breaking at once drew local and national media attention, and put new pressure on the mayor to show results—both to neighborhood activists and homelessness advocates. At the core of Murray's plan to tackle homelessness is urging the state and federal governments to give Seattle more money to get homeless people into shelter and housing. While Seattle waits for that money—it could be a long wait—the mayor has taken other steps.
Right: Lowering the barriers of entry for shelter
When Murray declared the state of emergency, he made a point of mentioning that some of the money he was setting aside for new shelter beds would be targeted at homeless people with pets and couples, two groups that often have trouble finding shelter. It's not much so far—about $500,000 in combined city and county funds for about 100 beds that accept pets—but it's an important step. The mayor has recognized a need for more flexible options. It's the same recognition behind projects like the subsidized housing at 1811 Eastlake, which allows chronically alcoholic residents to continue drinking and still receive services. (Studies have shown that project has resulted in less overall alcohol consumption by its residents and lower costs to the public.) Shelters and even city-sanctioned tent encampments often have sobriety rules or other restrictions (in the case of shelters, often no couples and no pets), rules that can make it more difficult for people to find shelter. There may always be people who choose to sleep outside for their own reasons. But if the city truly wants people to sleep inside—and is going to force them out of the place they're sleeping outside—requiring people to be sober or separated from their families or pets is counterproductive. Acknowledging this and funding alternatives is something the mayor is doing right.
Wrong: Cruel and incompetent encampment sweeps
Some illegal tent encampments are health hazards; some are in such dangerous spots that people have died falling from them onto the freeway. So some cleanups and sweeps of encampments are necessary. Even Mike McGinn—arguably Seattle's most progressive mayor—conducted sweeps. Occupy protesters once camped out in front of his house to protest a planned sweep of "The Jungle." McGinn went ahead with the sweep anyway.
But it matters how the city goes about these cleanups. Groups including the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services have raised concerns about whether homeless people are getting adequate access to services when they're kicked out of illegal encampments and whether the city is, as staffers claim, storing people's belongings after sweeps so they can retrieve them.
For example, city protocols that say items of value are supposed to be kept for people who are not at the encampment when it's swept. But service providers at a December 7 sweep witnessed "one especially egregious episode," the ACLU and CLS wrote in a letter to the mayor. "[One] man's neatly bagged belongings, including his medication, were thrown away while he went to a nearby shelter for additional storage bags."
The ACLU and CLS asked Murray to recognize that city shelters and legal tent encampments are not a "workable option" for everyone. Yet in response, Murray offered a defense of the sweeps and accused advocates of asking him to find city money to house every person currently sleeping on the streets, something most advocates are not asking for.
"Everyone is aware some encampments are a problem," says Tim Harris, the founder of the advocacy group Real Change, who has been an outspoken supporter of Murray on legal encampments and a critic of sweeps. "Nobody has a problem taking action on those, but we think the outreach needs to be authentic and compassionate. What they're doing just doesn't come close to meeting that bar."
The city must do a better job of following its own protocols. Right now, the sweeps are something Mayor Ed Murray's administration is doing wrong.
Wrong: Giving in to NIMBYs on density
Along with huge factors like federal disinvestment in affordable housing and an overwhelmed mental health care system, Seattle's homelessness problem is also tied directly to its lack of affordable housing. A 2012 report from the Journal of Urban Affairs studying the causes of homelessness linked the two: For every $100 increase in median rent in an urban area like Seattle, homelessness increased by 15 percent. According to RentJungle.com, a site that lists apartments for rent, average monthly rents for one-bedroom apartments in Seattle increased by $310 between January 2013 and December 2015. Those increases are now on the decline, thanks in part to new construction. Dupre + Scott, a group that advises apartment investors, reports that rents in Seattle increased by 5.1 percent between fall 2014 and fall 2015, down from an 8.1 percent increase the year before. (Those calculations looked at existing apartment rents but excluded pricey new units.)
Yet, about two-thirds of the city remains zoned single-family, preventing density in those areas and therefore limiting new construction that could help continue to drive down housing costs.
In an effort to increase affordable housing, the city is pursuing a multipronged plan known as the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). That plan includes allowing some new density in commercial parts of the city and requirements for developers to either set aside affordable units in new residential buildings or pay fees to help fund the construction of more units of affordable housing. But shortly after the Murray-convened HALA task force released those housing recommendations last year, the mayor backed away from an important recommendation—a proposal to allow increased density in single-family zones—under pressure from neighborhood activists.
There's a lot of nuance to be worked out in the imperfect HALA plan, but this move was a giveaway to NIMBYs.
In a telephone town hall on January 31, Murray doubled down on his position. A caller from Wallingford asked why the city planned to direct new development at areas known as "urban villages," which are already home to more density, instead of toward single-family zones. "The general consensus," Murray told the caller, "is there is an unwillingness for us as a city to change single-family [zoning], so we need to look at urban villages."
In fact, such a consensus may not exist. Neighborhoods complain loudly, but in last year's city council election, antigrowth candidates were defeated in both citywide and more hyper-local district races. The mayor and his staffers have consistently stood up to NIMBYs who opposed tent encampments and shelters for homeless people in their neighborhoods. It's time to do the same on density.