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Doing the Math on Homelessness and Housing

Note: An earlier version of this post included a typo regarding the homeless population in Seattle. The 2015 One Night Count of homeless individuals was 10,047 for King County, not the city of Seattle. This count includes individuals in shelters or transitional housing as well as on the street. The post has been updated to reflect this change. 

Seattle’s struggle to fight homelessness is similar to the battles playing themselves out in major cities across America.  Despite our best efforts, the number of people living on the streets has risen steadily.  In Seattle, we are waking up to the full scope of the homelessness crisis: 4,505 unsheltered people were counted in January of this year, a 19% increase over last year. That doesn’t include at least 6,000 people in shelters and transitional housing.

The causes of homelessness are complex and the solution may seem impossible,  but it’s not. Like the late Bill Hobson used to say, “The solution to homelessness is not rocket science. It’s a home.” In 2014, he put the price tag of housing all the homeless at $800-$900 million.

Let’s take a look at the math. The cost of building a single unit of apartment housing in Seattle depends on a lot of factors, but $200,000 is a reasonable estimate.  At that price, housing the estimated 10,000 homeless people in King County would cost $2 billion, well beyond what Bill predicted in 2014. The sad truth is that homelessness has only grown since 2014 and the cost of building has skyrocketed. That’s the price of our inaction.

With vacancy rates at all-time lows and only a few hundred affordable apartments in the pipeline each year, it’s unrealistic to expect our existing housing stock to fill the need. The logic that a person with an addiction, living in the Jungle is suddenly going to compete in the housing market is unsound. And while sweeping people into shelters may hide the problem, it doesn’t fix it. It’s a temporary solution that doesn’t provide a platform for human growth.

We simply must build more housing.  All of it.  Ten thousand units. To do any less consigns people to the inhumane conditions of the Jungle.

Two billion dollars is a lot of money, but we regularly come together to fund solutions to the big challenges we can’t solve on our own. Two billion dollars is less than half the $4.8 billion we’re spending on a two mile long tunnel; it’s only four times more than what we would spend on a 500 million dollar basketball stadium. If we can muster the political will to build tunnels and stadiums, what will it take to summon the courage to end the inhumanity of homelessness in Seattle?

Bill Hobson was well known for saying there is no such thing as a throwaway person. He was right about that.  But truly honoring the humanity of all our neighbors, those with homes and those without, comes with a cost. The question is whether we are willing to pay it.

Christopher Persons, CEO

 

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