Local Focus: What Can We Do About Homelessness and Affordable Housing?

Change Attitudes and Funding

By Al Levine

Hardly a week goes by that I’m not asked why we can’t do more to address Seattle’s homelessness and affordable housing problems.

The fact is we can do more, but we lack the political will and public support to do so.

Most everyone supports solutions as long as they take place in someone else’s neighborhood and preferably out of their sight. Housing needs do not respect city and county borders, but our programs to address them often do.

Part of the problem is that affordable housing still suffers from images of failed projects like Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green and various harmful and inaccurate stereotypes about those who live in low-income developments. Today we know how to build great affordable housing, and this region has many examples of terrific developments that are both assets to their tenants and the larger communities in which they are situated, often being the best building in the neighborhood. Contrary to what some assume, affordable housing residents are by and large no different in their values, desires, and needs than others in their communities, except they have less income and often lack the means to improve that reality, especially without stable housing. Similarly, when we provide stable housing to the formerly homeless, their ability to accept services and make a difference in their situation improves dramatically.

Unfortunately, building housing is not “rocket science”; it’s much more difficult. Housing development is one of the most fragmented things we do as a society. Complications abound in local government rules and regulations, which vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Zoning ordinances and their associated interpretations are all over the place. Financing  is inextricably more complicated for affordable housing than private development. Rules and regulations designed by the Department of the Treasury make compliance a stress-inducing endeavor for each and every unit produced and add considerably to the cost and complexity. Add in design, which now involves multiple disciplines, and construction coordination between hundreds of subcontractors, and you begin to appreciate the challenges.

In the greater Puget Sound area, we need to adopt the same type of approach it took to finally get transit going here: a regional perspective. The best way to accomplish this is to grant a new or existing entity the overarching abilities to assemble and sell land, compensate local governments for legitimate impacts, and control all locally and state-generated housing financing. Currently, we support what’s next in line for funding or someone’s idea of a good project instead of strategically focusing funding on the greatest needs and the most efficient use of dollars.

Such an entity could take advantage of the opportunities being created by our $60 billion investment in transit as well as ensure the kind of “fair share” distribution of affordable housing we need to convince citizens that they need to accept more units in their neighborhoods. Cities with restrictive zoning ordinances should be required to accept their “fair share” of housing or lose other desired funding.

As we inevitably reach a lull in the current boom cycle, market-rate developers, who have more depth and ability to scale than most nonprofits, should also be engaged to address our affordable housing issues. We are much more likely to see the adoption of innovative construction, design, and living environments with private sector involvement. Further, they are the only means of reaching the households that make too much to qualify for affordable housing but not enough to access market-rate housing.

We need to produce thousands of affordable units to meet the needs of those who will keep our streets safe, staff the restaurants we eat in, and teach our children and grandchildren­—not to mention a thousand other jobs that already are going unfilled in cities where housing is prohibitively expensive.

While subsidies will be required to achieve this, that can be traded off for affordability commitments of 50 years or longer.

Of course, we don’t have to do any of this, and we can see the effects of similar inaction very clearly in both New York and San Francisco—cities that increasingly only the very wealthy can afford to live in.

Unless we radically rethink the way we deliver housing (at least those factors within our ability to control), we are on a path with a clear and unfortunate outcome.

Al Levine is the former deputy executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority (1998–2013) and affiliate faculty in the Runstad Department of Real Estate in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington.