How ‘fears around density,’ mindset stuck in the past have fueled Seattle’s homeless crisis

Mar 29, 2022, 8:47 AM | Updated: 1:27 pm
Seattle homeless, social housing...
(MyNorthwest photo)
(MyNorthwest photo)

Local leaders have struggled to find solutions to Seattle’s homeless crisis for years, but as authors and researchers Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern point out, there’s one direction the region needs to be moving in to finally make progress.

Upzoning Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods could provide crucial ‘communal space’

Colburn and Aldern — who co-authored “Homelessness is a Housing Problem” — point to an odd discrepancy between relatively affluent cities like Seattle with high rates of homelessness and cities with more poverty but smaller homeless populations.

“Detroit has the highest poverty rate in the country, we know that poverty is a cause of homelessness, yet Detroit has one-fifth the homelessness that King County has,” Colburn described to KIRO Newsradio’s Dave Ross.

So, why is that? The answer, Colburn notes, boils down to one, single factor: Housing.

“It is easier to figure things out in a place where housing might only cost $600 or $700 a month, than in a place where it costs $1500 to $2,000 a month,” he said. “This is not earth shattering research in the sense that there’s a really basic intuition that underlies it, and I think we would all understand if we put ourselves into that position where housing is much cheaper, you might be able to make it work.”

In Seattle, efforts to ramp up construction of affordable housing and permanent shelter have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living. That’s been driven by a variety of barriers, including the cost of buying land, the rising price tag attached to materials and labor, and restrictive zoning to boot.

That’s all made it “very, very difficult” for the private market to quickly and efficiently build more housing, leaving it to communities and local leaders to face what Colburn describes as “a moral and ethical challenge.”

“We also just have a healthy community challenge — are we saying that third grade teachers can no longer live in the city because they can’t afford $2,000 rents?” he posited. “I don’t think that that is a good way to to run a community, and therefore I do believe that there needs to be a stronger role for for governments at all levels in the provision of housing.”

In order for that to strategy to take root, though, Colburn and Aldern believe that the entire region needs to change a mindset that has long been aggressively opposed to denser, affordable housing in traditionally single-family zoned neighborhoods.

Across King County, that’s been seen in frequent pushback against new hotel shelter spaces, where neighborhoods in cities like Kirkland, Renton, and Redmond have all fought back against recent efforts. Even so, it’s those kinds of solutions that Colburn says can move the needle on the region’s ever-escalating homeless crisis.

“If a housing authority takes control of an old hotel and all of a sudden, those units are being used by people who need them, that’s a great solution,” Aldern said. “And by the way, your block doesn’t look any different, except perhaps there are fewer people sleeping outside.”

Fight over homeless hotel shelters arrives in Kirkland

“Failure to welcome people into our neighborhoods through different types of housing is blatantly exclusionary, and it has significant costs,” Colburn added. “I think the fears around density are greater than what we will actually experience if we do this.”

“If we think about all the station areas that are going to be built up and down the light rail corridor in our region, the goal is how do we build 10,000 units around each of those station areas, rather than let’s say 1,000 units. And it sounds like a lot, but the reality is that when you visualize that, what it is, is it’s a cool area — you’ve got more dense housing, and it’s a walkable, pleasant experience.”

Any such progress, though, has been stalled out by an approach that Colburn says is stuck in a 1970s-era version of Seattle that simply isn’t feasible anymore.

“I think people have this view of Seattle of 30 years ago and say, ‘I really liked that and I want to preserve that,'” he detailed. “The reality of Seattle is that it’s now a global city, and global cities look and operate very differently.”

“I think the Seattle of the 1970s is gone, and if we hold on to that idea, it will continue to create challenges for us going forward,” Colburn continued. “Does that frustrate some people? Sure, absolutely. And I understand that people say, ‘I really like Seattle the way it used to be,’ but the reality is it’s not there anymore. I think what we’re going to see is Seattle is going to look a lot more like big global cities, and if you travel the world and go to big global cities, you don’t see a whole bunch of single-family zoning five minutes from the urban core.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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How ‘fears around density,’ mindset stuck in the past have fueled Seattle’s homeless crisis