Trickle-down economic policies fueled Seattle’s homelessness crisis. They can’t help us solve it

The trickle-downers blame our liberal city council for the crisis, and their reasoning is as simple as it is wrong.

Protesters with tax amazon signs

Housing advocates during a vote by Seattle City Council at City Hall in Seattle, May 14, 2018. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

The furious political battle raging over homelessness in Seattle can be understood in part as a battle over trickle-down economics.

Unable to advance a trickle-down agenda in fiercely progressive Seattle, conservatives and their allies in the media and business community have resorted to a proxy war, sowing fear of crime, drugs and homelessness in a well-financed campaign to elect a more “business-friendly” city council. But don’t get distracted. This is a battle over who is responsible for the homelessness crisis, and who has the solutions to fix it. And the sides are clearly drawn.

More than 11,000 King County residents — including 1,500 children — find themselves homeless at any point in time. This represents an unacceptable policy failure by any measure. Everybody agrees that homelessness is a crisis, and we know that it is not a unique one. Cities around the nation, in red and blue states, are struggling with their own housing crises, and our city’s response will likely help shape the way forward for the rest of the United States. But the question dividing Seattle — and defining our city council races — is whose policies have failed, and why?

The trickle-downers blame our liberal city council, and their reasoning is as simple as it is wrong: Progressive Democrats run Seattle, Seattle has a homelessness crisis, therefore, progressivism must cause homelessness. As Sinclair-owned KOMO TV argued in its “documentary” ”Seattle Is Dying,” liberals’ mindless “compassion” has allowed a “sickening reality” to fester in its streets. And now innocent people are getting caught in the crossfire: Last week’s heated rhetoric over an RV parked in front of Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s home escalated from threats of vigilantism to a harassment campaign perpetrated against a young pregnant woman and her partner trying to make a new start in the region.

Despite what commentators say, Seattle didn’t create this problem by itself. The national homelessness crisis was created by a trickle-down agenda of tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of the powerful and wage suppression for everybody else — an agenda that has dominated economic policy at the city, state and federal level for more than 40 years, wreaking havoc on rural communities and superstar cities alike.

To offset tax cuts for the wealthy, we slashed federal funding for low-income housing, rental assistance and mental health services. To keep wages low, we eroded the federal minimum wage, the overtime threshold and the power of workers to unionize. To free corporations from the alleged inefficiency of “market distorting” regulations, we turned a blind eye to predatory lenders, job-destroying mergers and the profit-maximizing pharmaceutical giants who triggered a nationwide opioid crisis by deceptively pushing highly addictive painkillers like OxyContin on an unsuspecting public.

These are just some of the trickle-down policies that laid the groundwork for mass homelessness. And once macroeconomic forces started concentrating economic growth into a handful of “knowledge economy” cities, Seattle’s crisis was kicked into high gear. In just eight years, between 2010 and 2018, Seattle’s population grew by more than 130,000 residents, while adding just 48,000 new housing units — few of them affordable. As a result, Seattle’s housing prices skyrocketed, forcing some of our most vulnerable residents out of their homes and into their cars, or into emergency shelters, or, most tragically, onto sidewalks and into the streets.

Ironically, many of the people profiting from all this growth are the same people  claiming “Seattle Is Dying,” a campaign slogan designed to distract from both a cause of the crisis — trickle-down economics — and from what we know we need to do to address it. Council candidates like Phil Tavel and Alex Pedersen try their best to sound progressive, but the policies they promote are cut and pasted from the same trickle-down handbook that has held us back for too long. Tavel, for instance, warns that the scourge of affordable and convenient light rail might bring more homeless people and crime to West Seattle.

First and foremost, we need more housing: hundreds of thousands of new units across the Seattle metropolitan area, serving all levels of income. This will require both a massive public investment in new housing and land-use reforms.

Second, we need to fund our supportive services at a level that scales to the size of the problem. Of course, local government should always strive to find efficiencies — and there are surely new efficiencies to be found. But candidates like Tavel and Pedersen who argue that we can audit our way to solutions are either disingenuous or deluded. On his campaign site, Pedersen argues that “Accountability fosters affordability,” but there is simply no way that accountability measures alone will free up enough revenue to meet the demands of this crisis. Seattle currently spends about $90 million a year on homelessness — far short of the estimated $400 million a year that a report estimated it would cost to address the problem in King County, not including the construction of any new affordable housing (the report, published by McKinsey & Co, received initial research support from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce). Yes, that’s a lot of money. But if proponents of a “tough on crime” solution were honest about the true costs of their own homelessness agenda, they’d have to admit that a compassionate solution is far more affordable than the billions it would cost to criminalize the homeless and house them all in jail.

In a city with as many wealthy residents as Seattle — in a state with as regressive a tax code as Washington — politicians who oppose new taxes on the rich aren’t trying to solve our city’s homelessness crisis; they’re trying to preserve the trickle-down policies that helped create it. But in a council election where every candidate claims to be “progressive,” how can you tell who is who?

In deep blue Seattle, virtually no one is going to campaign as an unabashed conservative or trickle-downer. Even the most right-leaning Democratic candidates say they want to address the homelessness crisis with supportive services and more housing. But if you listen to their speeches, read their platforms or follow the money trail to the PACs that fund them, you’ll find that they refuse to endorse the progressive tax increases that providing such housing and services at scale would require.

So don’t let conservative media propaganda — or corporate Democrats’ empty rhetoric — conceal what’s really at stake in this year’s city council races. On one side, there are progressives who want to solve our homelessness crisis by building an economy from the middle out, helping no-, low- and middle-income families secure their place in our city. On the other side, there are trickle-downers who want to prevent the worsening plight of our city’s poorest from impinging on the privileges of Seattle’s plutocrats. Before you go into the ballot box this November, make sure you know whose side you’re on — and who’s on yours.

Editor's note: Jessyn Farrell's employer, Civic Ventures, is affiliated with Civic Action, which has contributed to a political action committee, Civic Alliance for Progressive Economy (CAPE), that opposes the candidates mentioned in this Op-Ed.

Clarification: An earlier version of this Op-Ed claimed that a report estimating it would cost Seattle $400 million a year to address homelessness in King County was commissioned by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber was involved in initial research for the report, but the final product was published by McKinsey & Co, independent of the Chamber.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Jessyn Farrell

Jessyn Farrell is a senior vice president at Civic Ventures and a former state representative of the 46th District.