In the past few years, after decades of treating homelessness as a crisis without a solution, local governments across the Northwest have changed tack and offered ambitious plans not just to manage but to end urban homelessness. In Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, governments have moved to create new stocks of housing and maintain currently available units. Yet even as these efforts progress, economic conditions are undermining the affordability of housing and reducing the stock of market-rate low-income rentals, casting a cloud over the long-term viability of efforts to end homelessness.
It is common to discuss homelessness as a single phenomenon, but this obscures a much more complex picture. There are a variety of reasons for living on the streets. King County estimates that a third of its homeless population is afflicted by mental illness, but many others are homeless due to domestic violence or simple economic pressures. These factors reflect the original causes of the crisis: de-institutionalization of mental illness and the sizeable population of mentally ill Vietnam veterans on the one hand, combined with a conscious decision by national governments to stop building public housing.
Perhaps because of the multifaceted nature of the issue, past governmental efforts to deal with homelessness have proven inadequate; most have tended toward management of the effects of homelessness through shelters and policing. Portland in particular is notorious for its attempts to impose civility laws banning sleeping on the streets and "aggressive" panhandling.
The current efforts of Northwestern cities stem from a new consensus that management has been a dismal failure, and that the only effective way to end homelessness is to provide housing quickly to those who are forced onto the streets. Experts believe that this approach is considerably cheaper than the traditional methods of management and law enforcement, and that if implemented correctly it can provide long-term solutions for individuals afflicted by homelessness.
This approach has remarkably broad-based support, extending from street-level advocates to the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness
. Though the conditions on the ground in each city vary, several similar measures recur: building new low-income housing stock, providing housing with on-site support staff for those with mental illnesses (also known as supportive housing), ensuring that public institutions such as jails and hospitals release inmates or patients into stable housing and working with at-risk families and youth to head off homelessness before it happens.
Yet while much progress has been made in the past few years, the efforts of the various cities have been jeopardized by the rise in housing costs across the board. Low-income housing stock exists in a complex interaction between government agencies, non-profit organizations, private developers and the real-estate market. It is inadequate to discuss low-income housing only through the lens of publicly provided housing, which is merely a part of a complex picture. It has become substantially harder in recent years to build and maintain low-income housing, and rental units that once would have served low-income populations are now beyond the reach of workers earning the median income. In the long term, a solution to homelessness and housing insecurity will require a solution to this crisis of affordability, barring a sharp decline in the local real-estate market.
What follows is a look at the situation on the ground in Vancouver, Seattle, Spokane and Portland.
The headline says it all: "More Homeless than Athletes."
As Mayor Sam Sullivan and the governing coalition of the Vancouver City Council back-pedalled
from their promises of greatly increased housing by the 2010 Winter Olympics, online publication The Tyee
ran a series of reports warning that when the games open, Vancouver's homeless population could outnumber the competitors.
Though Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is notorious for poverty and drug addiction, it has to some degree provided a buffer against homelessness. Even as Vancouver's housing prices have shot through the roof, its homeless population has been smaller than that of Seattle or Portland. In large part, this is due to the endurance of a large stock of single-room occupancy hotels (SROs), relics of Vancouver's boomtown days as a resource exporter. Unlike in Seattle and Portland, Vancouver's SRO stock was largely not torn down and has provided a dirt-cheap option for those at risk of homelessness. Now, however, SROs are being lost to development
, prompting a massive government purchasing spree earlier this year. Meanwhile the homeless population of the Vancouver area roughly doubled between 2002 and 2005, from 1,1,21 to 2,174.
SRO loss has not been the only cause of a rise in homelessness. When elected in 2001 on a platform of fiscal conservatism, British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell and his Liberal government cut taxes sharply and decided it was time for the province to get out of the business of providing low-income housing. But as the homeless crisis grew, the Liberals backtracked, and in 2005 stepped up funding for housing.
The hiatus has made the situation much more difficult, however, as The Tyee's Monte Paulsen reports
. Governments are struggling just to maintain currently existing units in the face of rapid development and a rental vacancy rate of just 1 percent, roughly the same as that of Manhattan. Though BC Housing claimed to be building 1,342 new units of low-income housing in Vancouver alone, Paulsen found that only 521 of the units were actually new; the others were conversions of existing stock. Even these new units won't make up for the annual loss of SRO rooms, let alone other options for low-income renters. In the face of development and rising costs, the governments of the Vancouver area have been running just to stay in place.
Recently, the B.C. government has announced plans to redevelop the massive Riverview complex, which used to house a mental institution. Located on a 98-hectare (242-acre) plot of land in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam, the site could contain up to 7,000 new units of housing, including around 1,100 units of low-income housing. It already has set off a contentious debate among local governments and housing advocates about whether this plan is the best use of the property. If the plan goes ahead, the units will not be ready until well after 2010; at the rate Vancouver's homeless population is growing, even this many units may only be enough to keep the status quo.
Of all Northwestern cities, Seattle and its surrounding area have had the largest homeless population; the Committee to End Homelessness in King County
estimates the number of people sleeping in shelters or on the streets each night at 8,300. This number is almost certainly lower than the actual total population. In contrast to Vancouver, Seattle's stock of single-room occupancy hotels is largely gone; stringent fire codes and the pressures of downtown development swallowed most of them up.
The magnitude of Seattle's problem has led to an active and vibrant array of non-profit organizations providing housing and services. Current economic conditions are making the job of these organizations much more difficult.
With a booming economy and a rental vacancy rate of only 2.8%, Seattle's stock of low-income housing is under siege. Prices are rising rapidly, pushing the average rental price beyond the means of even median earners. Meanwhile, the region has seen massive rises in the cost of construction, which has affected non-profit and for-profit developers alike. At a recent meeting of the Seattle City Council's Housing, Human Services and Health Committee, developer Hal Ferris estimated that apartment construction costs had increased by 56% between 2000 and 2006. Moreover, developers say that the existing incentives for building affordable housing are completely inadequate.
King County's Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness
, adopted in 2005, called for the building of 4,500 new units of housing by 2014 with an additional 5,000 existing units purchased. By the end of 2006, the governments under the rubric of the plan had built 563 new units
while providing funding for the construction of 391 more and the conversion of 387 existing units. It is hard to say how much success these efforts are having at reducing the homeless population; the 2007 one night count
found a slightly higher number of homeless people compared to 2006, in part due to an expansion of the area examined by the count. Among the same areas as were counted in 2006, there was a slight reduction in numbers, but the count cannot be relied upon as exact.
The task of Seattle and other American cities has been complicated by mixed signals from the federal government. Though the Clinton administration oversaw modest increases in federal money for housing, the Bush administration has been far less willing to fund low-income housing. Stephen Norman, the executive director of the King County Housing Authority, says that his agency and others like it are facing future problems because federal public housing programs have been suffering from budget cuts. Existing properties are falling into disrepair due to a lack of capital funds; if this trend continues, it will require expensive redevelopment to replace existing units.
Frequently, the federal government has failed to match its own rhetoric with action. The Section 8 housing voucher program - the main federal form of rental assistance - was cut even as the federal government was urging local jurisdictions to end homelessness, though funding levels have since increased again. Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Congress is considering a major effort to expand federal funding of low-income housing,
providing both for more rehabilitation of existing stock and more new housing starts.
It would, on the face of it, appear to be good news: a company with links to high-tech firms buys a downtown property with an eye on turning it into a factory for Blu-Ray disc players. Yet BlueRay Technologies' purchase
of the Commercial Building in downtown Spokane was the latest event in a troubling series
of closures of properties providing low-income housing and services. As Spokane's downtown undergoes rapid development, non-profit agencies are falling behind on rents and getting pushed out. It's caused a public outcry, and has become an issue in Spokane's mayoral race
Spokane faces similar problems to other Northwestern cities. Having found, in its downtown, a potent resource for redevelopment and growth, it is struggling to deal with the effects of rapid development. Several of the recently lost properties were sold when non-profit agencies occupying them couldn't keep up with rising rents. Meanwhile, Spokane's government appears to have no coherent plan for dealing with homelessness or with the loss of low-income housing.
Portland and Multnomah County adopted their Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness
in 2004, and have claimed major successes. The scope of the city's problem, though not as dire as Seattle's, was pressing: the estimated number of people sleeping on the streets or in shelters in 2005 was 5,103.
Portland's plan is largely similar to Seattle's, though it calls for a smaller amount of new construction (1,600 units as opposed to 4,500). Portland has claimed success
in its efforts, with a 39% decrease in the number of people sleeping on the streets between 2005 and 2007. Meanwhile, shelter turnaway counts (measuring the numbers of people turned away from shelters due to lack of space) also saw substantial decline. In the past two years, 1,039 chronically homeless people were moved into housing; housing was provided to an additional 717 families. Despite the apparent progress in reducing street homelessness, the amount of people counted in shelters increased from 2,748 to 3,018.
Additional units of supportive housing are on the way. However, the stock of low-income rentals in Portland continues to decline
. Portland's plan appears to underestimate the need for new housing and may squeeze renters looking for low-cost properties, leaving open the question of whether the city has managed to find a long-term solution.
The new consensus on dealing with homelessness appears to be a major step forward, and governments across the Northwest are providing funding and making concerted efforts, with varying degrees of success. All of these efforts, however, are in jeopardy due to the continually rising real estate market and rental rates. Unfortunately, in most cases the governmental attempts to provide housing for homeless people has not led to a net gain of low-income housing. Governments are currently pursuing courses of policy that are insufficient to address the growing crisis of affordability for renters. Until there is a solution to the structural problems that are eating up low-income stock, homelessness will not go away.