Ross: Finland’s affordable housing strategy could work here too

Jan 20, 2023, 8:21 AM | Updated: 9:37 am


Kamppi apartments in Finland (Photo from Flickr @LewisMartin)

(Photo from Flickr @LewisMartin)

This week Colleen and I talked with one of the people who organized Finland’s successful campaign to get homeless people off the streets.

His name is Juha Kahila, he lives in Helsinki, and we wanted to know how Finland did it, so he told us.

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“We got to rid of most of the shelters. And we renovated the shelters into housing first units where people have apartments of their own,” Kahila said. “And then we tried to get rid of almost all the temporary solutions, and we built more affordable housing, where people could have a home of their own for an unlimited time.”

They realized that the free market would never solve the problem. Because you can’t make a profit building low-income housing and providing support services to the residents, so his foundation used tax money to do it.

Here, of course, we believe in the magic of the free market, except we really don’t. I hear people say, “let’s unleash the energy of the free market, and we’ll be swamped with housing.” And yet those same people want to keep zoning rules in place. Well, how is single-family zoning a “free” market? It’s not. It’s the ultimate government control.

Earlier this month, a group called Challenge Seattle, backed by local employers, issued a very specific plan for ending homelessness. At the heart of it is upzoning. The report notes that 70% of the residential land in Bellevue and Seattle is zoned single-family. On Mercer Island, it’s 90%.

The report says the state should pre-empt local zoning whether neighbors want it or not.

I asked our guest from Finland about that – about how they managed to build all that low-income housing near middle-class neighborhoods. He admitted not every neighborhood was happy but that Finland’s history played a role in helping people accept it.

“I think the history of Finland helps a little bit because back in World War II, we lost a lot of land to Russia. And we needed to house 400,000 people who were left on the wrong side of the border,” Kahila said. “So I think we have that mentality, everyone deserves a home of their own.”

In Finland, they have the mentality that everyone deserves a home of their own!

Is there anyone here who feels that way?

My impression is that in America, our mindset is that if you’re homeless if you’re living under a bridge, or in a tent, or a beat-up RV, you must have done something to deserve it. If you can’t feed your kids – well, you shouldn’t have had kids. You need to take personal responsibility. I’ve heard that line on talk shows for years. It’s been their theme song. “Personal responsibility, free market solution – but don’t change our zoning.”

Well, I would say we’re living in the free market solution right now. The free market says if you can’t afford rent, you live in a tent. If you can’t pay, we throw you away.

Whereas In Finland, the attitude is – we share an 830-mile border with a country that tried to exterminate us. And we can’t afford to lose a single citizen – rich or poor.

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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