A focus on housing instead of homelessness: Panelists weigh in during Tuesday coffee chat

We think we have heard all the arguments about housing and homelessness:

“Poverty, drugs, mental illness, job loss, divorce cause homelessness”

“Left-leaning politicians and permissive policies bring in more homeless.”

“We don’t want multi-family housing in our community”

But what we have heard about housing and homelessness may not be “all the arguments.”

– Detroit has a lower per-capita rate of homelessness than the Seattle area.

– Are we fooling ourselves that drug and mental health treatment will let us “treat” our way out of homelessness?

– The nation cut homelessness among veterans in half in the last 10 years with new loan and housing programs.

Those were among the comments and questions raised during Tuesday morning’s online Coffee Chat hosted by the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County. The session about the root causes of local homelessness and housing needs drew more than 300 participants. The alliance is a countywide group established to “create economic growth and opportunities.”Board members come from Boeing, Premera Blue Cross, colleges and school districts, Alaska Airlines, United Way, the Navy and communities throughout the county.

Gregg Colburn, assistant professor of real estate, UW College of Built Environments

The keynote speaker, University of Washington Assistant Professor Gregg Colburn, was blunt: “We cannot end this crisis or materially put a dent in homelessness, if we don’t focus our time, attention, and action on creating more housing.”

Colburn researched and co-authored the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem. He did not research just the homeless. “If we care about our police, firefighters and teachers we need to construct a lot more housing and it needs to be more affordable,” he said.

Chris Collier, Alliance for Housing Affordability

Chris Collier, from the Alliance for Housing Affordability of Snohomish County, put the question to participants: “Where is the starter home for our community today? What does it look like? What should it look like? Is it being built? Because it should be.”

For many, that “starter home” is an apartment. The panelists said national figures show that a $100-a- month increase in rent is enough to force some people of out their apartments.

Joan Penney, Common Cause Partner Campaign

Panelist Joan Penney, who was speaking on behalf of the Common Cause Partner Campaign, pointed out that the average rent for a studio/one bedroom in the county is now $2,025; two bedrooms average at $2,400. “The reality is, that people experiencing homelessness are here; this is a ‘we’ issue, not an ‘us versus them’.”

Penney, who also serves as communications director at the non-profit Housing Hope, said we “have to get past the stereotypes we are expressing.” Colburn added that housing is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. Of the major cities he researched, 85% had Democratic administrations, Republicans 8%, Independents 7%. Yet his research showed that the Democratic strongholds of Chicago and Cleveland do not have the same per-capita homeless problems of Seattle. But ultimately, any discussion sparks a political debate; state and local lawmakers respond to what voters will accept.

Collier said that we and our leaders often overlook the real cost. The idea of providing “housing first” is expensive, he agreed, but it is cheaper than spending on emergency room visits, EMT, police and fire services. He cites Washington State Hospital Association figures that a one-month stay in a hospital bed runs $100,000, and a jail or prison cell costs taxpayers $6,000 to 8,000 a month.  Subsidized housing in this area, he said, runs about $1,100 a month for rent and maintenance.

Money – who pays – is always problematic. Colburn cites one study that says our region needs 37,000 new housing units for “extremely low-income” families. That same study estimates the cost at about $1 billion a year over 10 years to build those units. Colburn asks, rhetorically, that if we have found a way to spend $54 billion over 25 years for transit, why not housing?

The answer, he added, is that we view transit as a “public good” and housing as a “private good.” But the private market alone, he contends, “cannot address the needs of all people who need housing.” What communities should ask, Colburn said, is “how do we convince our lawmakers to focus more on funding housing than on homelessness…and are we doing what we can to make sure that we’re creating conditions to build more housing?”

The Common Cause Partner Campaign, which Penney is part of, says its purpose is to help focus on that:

“We know through our work that when there is a diverse and plentiful housing, homelessness declines significantly. We hope you join us in this effort to make Snohomish County a more livable and affordable place for all our community members.”

            — Common Cause Partnership Campaign – Snohomish County

The panelists agreed that fear is often the biggest obstacle to change. Gregg Colburn said, “fear is a big motivator that sticks with people… we have to honor that but put (the issue) in a bigger context.” Chris Collier of the Alliance for Housing Affordability said we think “more people are bad for me.” He reminded us that we already know, “this is not the Puget Sound region of 1975; unless Microsoft and Amazon leave, we are going to be a more dense place.”

Collier summed up what he and others hope: “Housing doesn’t have to be scary. It may be scary now when you think of urban centers with extremely intense development; but we can do different things with the form and shape of housing… we can do it differently.”

— By Bob Throndsen

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