If the Seattle area wants to stave off homelessness and housing instability triggered by the pandemic, the neighborhoods that need the most support aren’t in Seattle at all.
In King County, which has one of the highest homeless populations in the country, researchers estimate that 36% — 317,763 — of all households in King County are in neighborhoods with moderate to high levels of potential housing instability, a number they say is on the conservative side. But the neighborhoods that face the highest rate of “housing precarity,” or the risk of losing current housing, are almost universally south of Interstate 90, according to new research from the Urban Displacement Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
Those neighborhoods are clustered around Kent and Federal Way. Beyond King County, several neighborhoods in Tacoma and Everett ranked high for risk of eviction or displacement.
Those neighborhoods, for the most part, also have some of the fewest resources to help households edging closer to homelessness, either because of smaller budgets, fractured political response or a lack of robust social service networks.
The research highlights a new urgency behind a longtime trend. As Seattle has become wealthier and whiter, poorer residents and communities of color have been pushed south, where many social and economic opportunities do not follow, a national phenomenon known as the suburbanization of poverty. Based on data from 17 cities, researchers also found that the greater the proportion of Black households in a neighborhood, the higher the neighborhood ranks for risk of eviction — a finding that shows that the history of racist housing and social policies continues to affect people in the present, the researchers said.
“The reason Seattle isn’t lighting up is because Seattle is gentrified so much and it’s already displaced its vulnerable population out,” said Tim Thomas, Urban Displacement Project research director. “That’s not to say there aren’t vulnerable people there. There’s a lot of vulnerable people in Seattle, but it’s not as concentrated as in places like South King County.”
The researchers used eviction data, unemployment statistics and other variables to build a model pinpointing the U.S. Census tracts where people are most likely to be evicted or forced out because of rising cost of living and lack of employment after pandemic-era supports like eviction moratoriums expire.
“These are the areas that are going to have the hardest time recovering after the pandemic, because they were struggling before the pandemic even started,” said Thomas, whose work was funded by a grant from artificial intelligence software company C3.AI.
Kris Van Gasken could have told you as much without the map.
Van Gasken, who runs the Des Moines Area Food Bank, said demand for the food bank’s services “skyrocketed” last year with the outbreak of the pandemic. As job losses mounted, Van Gasken said she started to recognize faces she had last seen a decade ago in the wake of the Great Recession. Even with the economy reopening, many of the food bank’s customers haven’t bounced back to where they were before the outbreak, she said.
“A lot of people here were employed with restaurants and the hospitality industry around the airport, and since no one was traveling and no one was flying and hotels were nowhere close to capacity, a lot of the restaurants closed,” Van Gasken said. “All those hospitality jobs around here were affected by that.”
Daniela Rodriguez, 27, said she’ll likely be dealing with the pandemic’s economic fallout for a long time to come.
Before the pandemic, Rodriguez was working as a housecleaner, and in January of 2020 gave birth to a boy. But with the outbreak of COVID-19, housecleaning clients in Seattle and Bellevue began canceling their appointments and work dried up. Rodriguez, who lives in Federal Way, was suddenly left with next to no financial support for her family.
“The little bit I had in savings, I used it for diapers, all the stuff I needed,” Rodriguez said. She let her electricity bill lapse, along with her rent.
Rodriguez was eventually able to get some rental assistance, but still isn’t back to full employment. She said she’s getting some part-time hours for cleaning houses again, but needs to hunt for more resources to make this month’s rent. It’s not a situation she’s used to — and she imagines the pandemic and her loss of savings will continue to impact her in the long term.
But even if local governments were to suddenly send a wave of money to communities where people in positions similar to Rodriguez’s live, that wouldn’t solve the whole problem, said Kent’s human service manager Merina Hanson.
“We know that just moving the resources isn’t going to solve the fundamental problem with poverty in the region,” Hanson said.
Kent, along with other South King County cities, doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure among existing nonprofits to meet the needs of everyone in the community who needs help, Hanson said. And because the need is so great, many resources end up going to crisis response rather than building long-term economic resilience, she added.
“What we’re dealing with is a capacity issue,” said Maju Qureshi, economic stability director at the Multi-Service Center, a social services nonprofit with offices in Kent, Burien and Federal Way. “These are systemic issues that [are] basically being left up to nonprofits mostly to step in and provide the support, and while we are happy to do it, the volume is so high.”
That volume is reflected in data Qureshi’s organization collected over the last year. In 2019, the organization helped 763 people with rental assistance, but in 2020, that number more than doubled to 1,812.
Thomas and his fellow researchers are hopeful, however, that governments can use the model and the map to target policies for long-term recovery.
“This map is like diagnosing an issue,” Thomas said. “And whether or not a city chooses to direct resources to a neighborhood or not will impact how the map will look.”