The Seattle Times
The city of Seattle cannot, on its own, solve the Puget Sound region’s twin problems of homelessness and disappearing affordable housing. These are regional issues that cross city boundaries and demand regional solutions.
The homelessness problem is so big, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine recently joined officials from other West Coast cities to declare a state of emergency. The goal is to secure more state and federal dollars to address the issue in a way similar to how governments address natural disasters, such as floods and wildfires.
Seattle has been doing more than its share, financially, for many years, although suburban cities are increasingly stepping up. Seattle taxpayers recently renewed a housing levy to secure more affordable housing and address homelessness. Perhaps, it’s time for the region to consider a similar countywide or regional housing tax.
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King County estimates more than 10,000 people are homeless on any given day, including about 4,600 people living on the street and more than 6,000 in emergency or transitional housing. Most are in Seattle — perhaps because more services are available.
However, officials in cities outside Seattle note the pressure of increasing rents on affordability, which might force more people onto the street. Many suburban King County cities are doing a good job coordinating their efforts. A Regional Coalition for Housing — or ARCH — comprises 15 cities with the goal of increasing affordable housing. Seventeen cities created All Home to address and prevent homelessness.
These cities should also change their development laws to create incentives for builders to include affordable housing in their projects or be forced to contribute meaningfully to a fund that buys existing developments and turns them into affordable units.
Bellevue Mayor John Stokes says the recent purchase of a Crossroads apartment complex with below-market rents was an important step for his city, which is better known for Bellevue Square Mall and as a place where tech millionaires live.
This Highland Village rescue also demonstrates how different government agencies — led by the city of Bellevue and the King County Housing Authority — and nonprofits can work together to address both homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.
Founded in 1992, ARCH coordinates multicity projects and helps cities develop friendly affordable-housing policies and regulations.
Many of the same partners formed All Home to fight homelessness. Among its efforts is a new coordinated screening process for people who need housing and other services. The agency also helps coordinate cities’ spending by asking social-services agencies to make one request for grants from all 17 cities.
For 2017 needs, Bellevue has pledged more than $4.5 million toward these nonprofits. Kent kicked in $2.3 million and Kirkland, Redmond, Renton and Federal Way each pledged more than $1 million. All together, the 17 cities have made pledges totaling nearly $18 million to more than 200 regional nonprofits.
That effort is encouraging but does not compare to the amount of money Seattle homeowners are pulling out of their pockets for similar efforts. Seattle’s budget just for homelessness in 2016 totals $47 million.
The numbers are harder to quantify regarding efforts to address increasingly scarce affordable housing, but, again, Seattle, through its housing levy, is doing more than its neighbors.
People need to make close to $30 an hour to afford a market-rate apartment in the east side’s largest city of Bellevue, where most rents hover around $2,000 for anything more than a studio. Nonprofit agencies report more homeless than ever are among the working poor.
The challenges are great and the needs significant. Many suburban cities are stepping up in a coordinated way, but more money is needed.
Decision-makers in the cities and the county should consider if a countywide housing tax might be a solution to the increasing shortage of affordable housing and for homelessness.