If business groups were now coming forward with a viable progressive revenue strategy that they prefer, which would generate the needed investments in housing, and could make a major impact on homelessness, those who are advocating for an employee hours tax would listen with interest.
The leaders of three large business associations made a surprising case for the status quo in addressing the homeless crisis, [“No to jobs tax: Seattle’s approach to homelessness is not working,” March 22, Opinion.] If Seattle follows the approach recommended by Jon Scholes, Marilyn Strickland and Louise Chernin, we will assuredly face thousands of people living homeless in our public spaces for the foreseeable future, with all the human suffering, public-health and order issues that come with it.
These organizations were invited to participate in the City Council’s Progressive Revenue Task Force, which met from January to March and issued recommendations for an employee hours tax, but they stayed away. Had they participated, they would have had to wrestle with sobering facts about the scale of the crisis, and the scope of response required. These facts lead inescapably to the conclusion that new revenue is needed if we want to see a meaningful shift on homelessness.
There is an enormous regional housing gap for low-income people, with an estimated 17,161 missing units for our lowest income households in 2016, increasing to 27,481 by 2030. Commendable outreach practices (including the popular Navigation Team) and low-barrier shelters (including the Navigation Center) are stymied because often there is no housing for people they engage with to move into. King County’s Coordinated Entry For All system has units for just 11 single adults a month, despite a waiting list of thousands of people who are homeless and have been assessed as having high needs.
Our homeless services system is not the cause of this bottleneck. Robust analyses from multiple independent and government sources show that increasing homelessness is driven by rising housing costs, an acute situation in Seattle and King County.
Contrary to the business groups’ rhetoric, we are getting value from Seattle’s current spending. Thousands of people are being sheltered and housed every night and thousands more have homes thanks to past investments and the current resourcefulness of homeless service providers. Seattle innovation is proving that housing people who heavily utilize crisis, health and criminal justice systems reduces burdens on those systems and costs to the public. People are “exiting” homelessness in higher-than-ever numbers, but the overall hot economy is making the housing affordability crisis ever worse.
Current spending is insufficient. Pathways Home, the expert analysis, pointed to housing availability and access as a key missing piece, and called for the city to focus less on shorter-term interventions and concentrate on housing.
The Progressive Revenue Task Force registered these facts and took up the responsibility to address housing, recommending a revenue source which would allow the city to actually do what Pathways Home urged. The Task Force recommends that 80 percent of all funds generated by an employee hours tax be dedicated to expanding housing stock. The exact structure of such a tax is up for debate and can be arranged to hold harmless small or struggling businesses. And any other viable revenue strategy would have been considered, but no serious alternative has been brought forward by the business organizations.
The time to be coy about the scale of what is needed is long past. Without a housing solution, we are left to fiddle around the edges.
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Creative strategies like master leasing and deep rental subsidies can utilize existing housing stock to create an exit from homelessness for some in the near term. These strategies were among the Progressive Revenue Task Force recommendations.
But there is no question whether we need to build housing to solve this problem. Building housing costs a lot of money, in part because of our high cost of living, prevailing wage rates and worker protections, which benefit many. A price tag of $170,000-$312,000 a unit in Seattle yields one inescapable conclusion: new revenue is needed.
The approach of Scholes, Strickland and Chernin — trying to make meaningful changes in the scale of our homelessness crisis without funding for housing — would put Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine in a terrible position.
If business groups were now coming forward with a viable progressive revenue strategy that they prefer, which would generate the needed investments in housing, and could make a major impact on homelessness, those who are advocating for an employee hours tax would listen with interest. That would be responsible civic leadership. Instead, they set Mayor Durkan up for a very tough road, with an expectation to house people with no available revenue base with which to work.
This is disappointing, given the strong history of partnership Seattle business and human services organizations have in supporting real, pragmatic solutions to poverty and public health issues. It’s irresponsible to pretend we will see real progress on homelessness without new revenue.