There was good news and bad news in January for low-income residents of Seattle who need an affordable place to live.
More than 100 new units of low-income housing, built for residents earning from 30 to 60 percent of Seattle median income, opened up near the Othello light rail station in South Seattle.
The bad news? Almost 2,100 families applied to get in. The results were settled by lottery. Those one-in-20 odds of qualified applicants getting housed were roughly the same as winning $3 on a Washington State Lottery scratch ticket.
What lies behind such madness? Seattle rents have risen by 43 percent in just the past four years. According to Zillow, the median monthly apartment rental now sits at $2,350. This means rents in Seattle have increased by an average of about $250 annually for four years running.
When people ask me why homelessness in this city continues to expand, despite our Homeless State of Emergency and all the other good work being done, my answer is always the same.
It’s been estimated that every $100 increase in urban rental costs corresponds to a 15 percent increase in homelessness. Human service solutions to the market-driven affordable housing gap can go only so far.
In a very real sense, public spending to mitigate homelessness is an externalized cost of a housing market that is mostly interested in profiting from higher earners. The people who profit most from Seattle’s housing boom don’t pay. We do. Through higher taxes and an unceasing and visible flood of human misery.
While we won’t know the results of January’s point-in-time count of unsheltered homeless people until May, we do know that enrollment of homeless students in the Seattle Public Schools system rose about 20 percent this year.
We can safely assume the news in May will not be good.
So why, then, has a city known for its compassionate approach to homelessness conducted about 1,000 homeless encampment sweeps since 2015?
And why has the mayor, who has stood up so admirably for the constitutional rights of immigrants and refugees, failed so miserably to honor the property rights of homeless people while conducting sweeps of their survival camps?
That question lies behind a lawsuit filed recently by the ACLU in Seattle’s U.S. District Court. Real Change has joined the suit as a plaintiff, along with the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia and two named homeless individuals.
The majority of Real Change’s homeless vendors sleep outside because most homeless shelters fail to meet their needs. When their encampments get swept, they often lose survival gear such as tents, sleeping bags and blankets, as well as harder-to-replace items such as family papers and photos.
Plaintiff Brandie Osborne, who lives outdoors to not be separated from her partner, recently had her encampment swept for the sixth time in less than two years.
News photographer Alex Garland was on hand, and posted an interview with Osborne immediately following the sweep.
“The state trooper lifted the tent flap with a shovel. I said hello, and he said, ‘You have 30 minutes to get up and get out. After 30 minutes, we’re going to take what’s left and throw it in the garbage.’ I said, ‘You realize we can’t move all this in 30 minutes? The fence is locked. Where do you want us to go?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’”
According to current sweeps protocols, Osborne and her partner were not entitled to notification or storage of possessions for later retrieval. The site’s designation as a frequently swept area made all that unnecessary.
“So, here we are, on the side of the dog park trail with what’s left of our stuff. The rest of it got thrown away.”
The ACLU argues that this is a violation of the constitutional right to due process and limitations on search and seizure. Proposed new city rules that regulate homeless sweeps still allow removal without notice on city-owned or controlled property, or in many of the other areas where encampments exist.
Meanwhile, between Seattle’s homeless crisis and housing affordability crisis, Osborne’s question — “Where do you want us to go?” — still awaits a better answer.