Every Pacific Northwest hiker knows the old joke about how to escape a bear attack: Just make sure your hiking buddy is slower than you! Har har. It’s a worn-out wisecrack, but it’s a pretty accurate description of the way Seattle and other cities like it handle homelessness.
Sure, we could just spray the charging bear with mace rather than sacrifice our fellow hiker. Other hikers like us do that, and it works out just fine for them. But we hate the smell, we mistakenly believe it hurts the environment, and it costs us money. And so, to avoid being eaten ourselves, we make sure to put the youths, the elderly, the poor, the mentally ill, or the addicted between us and the bear. And after doing that for years now, we’ve come to blame our more vulnerable partners for forcing us to watch bears eat them all the time.
In their new book, Homelessness is a Housing Problem, University of Washington Professor Gregg Colburn and data scientist Clayton Page Aldern tell a similar tale, but they tell it with data and charts and houses and homelessness figures rather than with an extended metaphor about bear spray and humans getting hoovered by bruins.
Researchers from a variety of disciplines and ideologies (left, right, and center) agree that a tendency to zone “country club” in the parts of town where lots of people want to live creates many of the problems afflicting cities. This book breaks new ground by comparing cities with high and low rates of homelessness and then systematically ruling out reasons for the variation.
In doing so, the authors examine common explanations for homelessness often promoted by Fox News commentators, the Seattle Times Editorial Board, and an upsetting number of Democrats in the State Legislature. As it turns out, they find that poverty, serious mental illness, mild climates, and generous welfare benefits do not create our homelessness problem. Not building enough homes does.
Specifically, the research showed that the poor and those who struggle with addiction are much more likely to be housed in cities with low rents and lots of apartment vacancies than they are in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.
What keeps rents down, vacancies up, and people housed? Having enough homes for everyone who wants to live in the city. Detroit, MI struggles to keep its population numbers high, so housing there is relatively abundant. Officials in Charlotte, NC let developers build like crazy, and so the city boasts lots of vacancies and low rents as well. It’s not exactly counterintuitive: As long as there are enough places to live, prices stay somewhat stable and people remain housed.
The story in Washington, however, is different. Since 2000, we’ve fallen behind by about a quarter million new homes just when it comes to keeping up with population growth, according to a 2020 report from Up For Growth. (The figure in the article is 225,000 for 2000-2015, and I extrapolated from census data thereafter.) It’s as if Y2K actually destroyed the construction business and we are just now figuring it out. Meanwhile, other UW Scholars have shown that about a half million of Washington households pay 30% to 50% or more of their income just to live under a roof. Homelessness has, of course, soared since all of this got so out of whack.
To their credit, the researchers don’t suggest purely commercial answers to our housing crisis. That is, they don’t say we can sprinkle capitalist market fairy dust all over town and watch prices fall like one of those old WalMart commercials. After all, developers aren’t dumb enough to supply us into a downward price spiral. And building housing that people with low-incomes can afford in places where land and labor are expensive probably isn’t profitable.
Instead, the researchers advocate for passing policy to incentivize more market-rate housing construction and to build more affordable housing – lots and lots and lots of it.
Bear spray, basically.