Seattle City Budget Continues to under-fund Affordable Housing
Above - The ‘Unstable House’ which the AIA Committee on Homelessness developed with Real Change for the Seattle Design Festival
I penned the below Letter to City Council on the eve of their biennial vote. The final 11/14 vote cut the budget for the Cities ‘Navigation Team’, who a partnership with the Police Department which spearheads the sweeps of homelessness encampments which result in the disposal of the property of hundreds of individuals each year, further upending the lives of those already experiencing homelessness, however provided no additional resources for permanent housing. I am including the letter here because researching and writing it was extremely informative to me. Big shout out to my colleagues at the AIA Committee on Homelessness who discussed these topics with me on many occasions, helping me work through me thoughts, and who edited the final result.
Every night in King County around 12,000 people sleep wherever they are able to find refuge: on street corners, in doorways, on highway medians, in cars, and in shelters. The number of people living this way, living without permanent shelter, has doubled in the last five years alone.
We are all familiar with and overwhelmed by the statistics, by the number of Seattle residents forced onto the streets every day. We all know the sinking feeling of passing tent encampments where suitcases and blankets—items like those in our own homes—grow soggy in Seattle’s chilly drizzle. We can’t ignore the struggle for safety and basic human dignity that plays out in full public view on too many street corners.
Mayor Jenny Durkan has said herself, “Every night, thousands of our neighbors sleep outside without shelter, in some of the most inhumane and dangerous conditions you can imagine. While every single person experiencing homelessness in Seattle has their own story, what is true across Seattle is the need to help our neighbors move to safer places as we work together to build a better future for all who call Seattle home."
Those experiencing homelessness, service providers on the ground, and the very consultants which the city hired to address the crisis have reiterated that the need for stable and affordable housing is the most pressing concern for individuals living on the street and the most important path forward in addressing the crisis. Despite the consensus that the homelessness crisis can only be solved by providing economically accessible, permanent homes, the City’s budget for 2019 fails to address this shared, popularly supported vision.
Currently only $24.9 million of the City’s proposed budget is dedicated to the category very loosely defined as ‘housing.’ While this number may sound large, it is less than half of one percent of the city’s budgetand represents a small decrease from last year. Shouldn’t the lack of affordable housing, one of the root causes of the homelessness crisis that was declared an Emergency three years ago, be funded adequately?
Furthermore, the limited funding categorized as ‘housing’ currently allocates its funds towards strategies we know to be ineffective and harmful. While City press releases describe the Mayor’s budget as ‘deploying new and unprecedented resources’ to address this crisis, Mayor Durkan’s budget proposal does not increase funding for actual housing production, but focuses instead on increasing sweeps and emergency shelter services.
This crisis has impeded the ability of many other city agencies to operate effectively. The health professionals on the King County Board of Health are unable to deliver effective health care, supportive services, or sanitation resources when people lack safe and stable shelter. Seven percent of King County public school students are currently experiencing homelessness, leading to higher absentee rates and lower test scores, and challenging teachers tasked with ensuring continuity in these student’s education with limited resources. In short, the efficacy of many of the city’s investments in public health, education, and economic development could be shortchanged by the city’s continuing reluctance to make meaningful investments in assisting its residents in finding stable, affordable housing.
We are in a housing crisis, and more permanent housing is desperately needed. But, instead of funding strategies that we know will work, Mayor Durkan’s budget is prioritizing temporary measures that merely aim to reduce the visibility of homelessness. The ‘housing’ category includes funding for ‘Diversion programs,’ ie, short-term solutions such as placing individuals with family members, . Diversion programs only work when there is housing available for people at the end of their short stay elsewhere. With this budget plan, Seattle falls farther and farther behind on being able to provide enough supportive and affordable housing to meet the growing need.
The biggest change in the budget is in the funding to the ‘Navigation Team,’ a partnership with the SPD which aims to get people off the streets through sweeps. The team includes police officers, a clean-up crew and outreach workers, and is in charge of clearing camps with only 72 hours notice. Sweeps have been shown to be an expensive, ineffective, and possibly illegal method for moving unsheltered groups of people out of a specific area. These sweeps, often unannounced, violate the rights of homeless individuals and destroy their property. Through these traumatic incidents, the City criminalizes poverty and violates the constitutional rights of individuals, while failing to address the actual causes of homelessness. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is currently suing the City of Seattle and Washington Department of Transportation for these practices.
Whether they are proven illegal or not, sweeps provide no solutions (not even temporary ones) for unhoused people. Officers direct people to go from the encampment to shelters which are already full. Navigation Team leader Fred Podesta openly acknowledged the city is currently just shuffling those experiencing homelessness in between encampments.Funding for these efforts has jumped 72% between the 2018 budget and the proposed 2019 budget, up to 4.3 million from 2.5 million. Why does this budget fund harmful and ineffective programs like this? Overall, these are programs that don’t provide lasting solutions and are traumatic for our unsheltered neighbors and our community.
Seattle homeless shelters are regularly at maximum capacity. Emergency shelters are needed because there isn’t enough available and affordable housing stock. But, shelters aren’t a long-term solution for anyone, not even low-barrier ones like the Navigation Center.
If we, the Mayor, and the City want to actually make positive changes in the housing and homelessness crisis, we should put more money towards creating more housing and funding proven support programs. We can’t continue to throw money at ineffective programs; we must fully address the actual causes of homelessness.
1 ‘Seattle/King County Point-in-time Count Of Persons Experiencing Homelessness, 2018’. http://allhomekc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/FINALDRAFT-OUNTUSIN2018REPORT-5.25.18.pdf
6’What You Need to Know About Seattle’s Budget’. https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/Council/Committees/Budget/Bagshaw-Budget-Infographic.pdf
8 ‘2019-2020 Biennial Budget Proposal: Homelessness and Housing Investments’. http://durkan.seattle.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Fact-Sheet-Addressing-our-Homelessness-and-Housing-Crisis.pdf
12 ‘Homeless Sweeps – Important Case Law and Frequently Asked Questions’. https://www.aclu-wa.org/docs/homeless-sweeps-%E2%80%93-important-case-law-and-frequently-asked-questions
13 Hooper v City of Seattle: A lawsuit against the City of Seattle and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for violating the constitutional rights of people living outside by seizing and often throwing away their property - without adequate notice, an opportunity to contest the seizure and destruction of their belongings and homes, or a meaningful way to reclaim any property that was not immediately destroyed. https://www.aclu-wa.org/cases/hooper-v-city-seattle
Also: ‘ACLU-WA asks court to halt Seattle’s illegal raids on homeless peoples’ property’. https://www.aclu-wa.org/story/aclu-wa-asks-court-halt-seattle%E2%80%99s-illegal-raids-homeless-peoples%E2%80%99-property
‘Seattle City Council Central Staff Homelessness Memo’.
 ‘seattle/King County Point-in-time Count Of Persons Experiencing Homelessness, 2018’ http://allhomekc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/FINALDRAFT-COUNTUSIN2018REPORT-5.25.18.pdf
What You Need to Know About Seattle’s Budget https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/Council/Committees/Budget/Bagshaw-Budget-Infographic.pdf
 2019-2020 Biennial Budget Proposal: Homelessness and Housing Investments http://durkan.seattle.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Fact-Sheet-Addressing-our-Homelessness-and-Housing-Crisis.pdf
 Homeless Sweeps – Important Case Law and Frequently Asked Questions
 Hooper v City of Seattle: A lawsuit against the City of Seattle and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for violating the constitutional rights of people living outside by seizing and often throwing away their property - without adequate notice, an opportunity to contest the seizure and destruction of their belongings and homes, or a meaningful way to reclaim any property that was not immediately destroyed. https://www.aclu-wa.org/cases/hooper-v-city-seattle
Also: ACLU-WA asks court to halt Seattle’s illegal raids on homeless peoples’ property
 Seattle City Council Central Staff Homelessness Memo: http://seattle.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=6693772&GUID=F5E80F2A-4E4C-4D2A-A4BB-9F07EE2B85D2