Seattle has a growing homeless population. In the greater King County area, around 70% of the homeless live in Seattle. The county saw a 4% increase in 2017 to 12,112 homeless out of about 2,200,000 people, which represents about 0.55% of the population being homeless.
This is consistent with national averages, not abnormally high. Many news reports have suggested there has been a recent spike in homelessness greater than ever before, such as The Guardian article America’s homeless population rises for the first time since the Great Recession. This is not true – the homeless rate last spiked in the 1980’s after large cuts to federal social programs, and homelessness has been trending slowly downward since. But not in all places, like Seattle, where homelessness has trended upward.
There are several possible reasons why homelessness is increasing in Seattle. The reason gaining most traction recently is a result of both property prices and rent prices rapidly rising, which in turn is a result of Seattle’s highly successful businesses that draw in affluent workers from around the world.
It is true that property values are increasing remarkably. And landlords, as a natural course of market forces, raise rents accordingly by what the housing market will support. This can displace tenants. And if these tenants do not find higher paying jobs, they are displaced from their current residence. And if they then do not leave King County for less expensive places, they are then counted among the homeless.
Seattle has increased its spending on the homelessness issue at a much greater rate than the increase in the homeless population, spending large sums from housing tax levy funds as well as the general fund, to create a sprawling set of decentralized social programs and services for the homeless, including 5,312 housing units, at a cost of over $120 million, plus ongoing expenses.
In addition to this, the shelter program budget alone in 2017 was $13.8 million and is increasing to $16.8 million in 2018.
Seattle has adopted the approach of “housing first” – making permanent housing available at a low qualification barrier, without preconditions or time limits on how long an individual can stay. This is, of course, a sought-after commodity.
Talk of placing rent control on landlords to keep rents artificially lower than the market would support might help some tenants, but it does nothing to stop the property values from increasing, which causes property taxes to increase, which the landlords must pay. So far this approach has not been given much serious consideration.
The most recent approach was championed by Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant under the banner of social justice. She pressed very hard for a “head tax” to be levied upon any business making more than $10 million annually of around $500 per employee. Her justification, and the justification of those who rallied behind her, was that these companies who were succeeding where the very reason Seattle has a homeless problem – they make the value of the property go up, which increases rent, which people can’t pay, and so they are thrown out into the street.
The so-called “social justice warriors” were very vocal in their support of this head tax, while the loudest adversaries of the head tax were surprisingly the construction workers who were worried they would be out of a job if the head tax were passed, because they believed companies would no longer want to be in Seattle with that much larger tax burden.
This head tax became known as the “Amazon Tax”, and gave both sides on the issue a focal point to argue their case – for the construction workers, Amazon is always building, giving us jobs, and we want that to continue, so drop this head tax talk. And for Sawant, Amazon has done well, and are therefore morally obligated to pay for the homelessness they have created.
Sawant ended up getting enough support on the Seattle City Council through crowds and megaphones to pass the measure creating a head tax, and the mayor of Seattle, Jenny Durkan, after Amazon said they would stop all new construction if the head tax passed at $500/head, managed to get the tax reduced to $275/head instead, mollifying both sides.
Oddly, one of loudest companies against the head tax was Dick’s Burgers, a locally-famous burger joint known for paying their worker exceptionally well and offering excellent benefits.
Seattle may seem to many from the outside to be a bastion of unthinking and rabid liberalism. And there is a lot, admittedly. But the people of Seattle are also pretty smart, and most do not subscribe blindly to any ideology, and are almost always open to reason.
It became clear to some that Sawant’s reasoning was faulty – there is no directly causal link between the success of Seattle’s companies and homelessness. They were not the cause. But they were a factor in Seattle’s success, and subsequent increase in value that has displaced so many. And the link between this displacement and going directly to the street is also not established.
Seattle also came under greater scrutiny for their current spending on the homeless issue, and whether or not their approach was the best. One such example is, why sell off an expensive piece of city property in a central location to a developer when you can use it to create the housing you want to buy?
This scrutiny and the fact that a citizen’s ballot was started to gain signatures to place a people’s referendum up for vote, to revoke the city council’s actions, and the fact that this citizen’s referendum was gaining signatures ridiculously fast, and that citizen polls showed that almost nobody wanted this new head tax, was enough to convince the Seattle City council to rescind the head tax just today.
Sawant and her followers are trying to frame this as corporate greed with their “unlimited funds” being victorious again over social justice. But the fact, instead of this propaganda, is that the people of Seattle decided they did not want this tax.
And the city council listened. Many speculate that the council listened because later this year they want a tax that will give free college tuition to residents. So they question is, offer free housing to a growing number of people, indefinitely, without any other plan, or give people free college tuition? I think I agree.
- About-face: Seattle City Council repeals head tax amid pressure from businesses, referendum threat
- Annual homeless count reveals more people sleeping outside than ever before
- Homelessness in the United States
- US Department of Housing and Urban Development 2016 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report Part 2
- What Seattle has spent on Housing for the homeless