Growth will continue to reduce affordable Seattle housing, making regional solutions vital if prosperity is to be shared by more than the wealthy.
It seems like every city has housing problems, but not a lot of housing solutions. Probably that’s because housing is tied in with so many other issues.
I listened to some people talk about the challenges last week and came away feeling a little frustrated, but also glad a lot of people and organizations are wrestling with housing issues because they make a difference even though there is no visible finish line.
We passed the 10th year of the 10-year plan to end homelessness in King County without achieving that goal, but working toward it improved our ability to deal with inadequate housing and related problems.
Former King County Executive Ron Sims said a city can’t address housing issues alone, that the solutions have to be regional.
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Housing work is as basic as providing temporary shelter and as complex as managing the rapid growth Seattle is experiencing in a way that is beneficial to the broadest range of residents. As Seattle grows and becomes wealthier, people of lesser means migrate to the suburbs, usually South King County.
Seattle is not going to be made affordable to everyone, Sims said. The question now is whether the jobs the city attracts will benefit people outside the city. “Like San Francisco, it is going to be unaffordable,” except to people with high incomes. Poor people are already leaving, and as costs rise, the remaining middle class will shrink.
Seattle will be a jobs center, and middle-class families will live elsewhere.
Sims, who’s been involved in making public policy for decades, served as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from 2009-2011. He said he knew of no place that has successfully managed housing problems as a region, so we have an opportunity to create a model. That requires coordination and cooperation to distribute resources so that the suburbs, where many families will live, will not become “poorburbs,” but will share in the prosperity.
He was one of a group that brainstormed about housing issues before the annual luncheon of The Housing Development Consortium, an association of 110 member organizations that fund, develop or operate affordable housing in King County.
Of course what the suburbs want, someone else said, is not more people needing help, but more of the high-end development Seattle is getting.
The current trajectory is making Seattle a richer, whiter city and leaving South King County suburbs trying, without sufficient resources, to serve poorer and more diverse populations.
And where will the people in those suburbs work? Marty Kooistra, the consortium’s executive director, said the transit system is too frail to get them to where jobs exist without consuming too much of their time and money.
The luncheon speaker, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, said D.C. has an efficient transit system, but as the city has attracted more and more people with money, residents of modest means have moved farther and farther out. Even with good transit, commuting to where the jobs are becomes increasingly difficult.
We’re fortunate to be a prospering city like D.C. or San Francisco, but many people are being left behind whether cities are prospering or not, because of increasing economic inequality and shrinking opportunities.
At the luncheon, Robinson talked about visiting Baltimore last week and seeing lots of vacant houses. Some parts of Baltimore are doing well, but the good times don’t reach everyone.
He said Baltimore had 950,000 people in 1950 when Bethlehem Steel was the largest employer in town. When those blue-collar jobs left, many of the people who’d held them left. The city has 650,000 people today, and Johns Hopkins University is the largest employer.
How many of the people who in another era would have worked at Bethlehem have the skills needed to work at Johns Hopkins?
Robinson found out there were at least 16,000 vacant houses in the city, most probably not fit for habitation.
And if you could put people in those houses, where would they work? Would the schools nearby offer the kind of education the modern job market rewards? Not likely.
Sometimes just having a house isn’t enough.
Robinson reminded the audience that as a child, Freddie Gray, the young man who died in police custody in Baltimore, lived in a house full of peeling lead paint and that he showed signs of the impact of that lead, for instance, lagging four years behind in reading. Lead poisoning damages children’s mental and physical development. Gray had high levels of lead in his system.
Jobs, education, income, race, opportunity, safety — Gray’s story is about all of that, and where he lived is part of that story.
Housing isn’t just about a roof. It can be a consequence of other problems and a contributor to some problems, and usually it’s both. Or it can be a result of healthy systems and a factor in individual success. We need to keep working for more of the latter.