The Failed Math of Fixing Homelessness in Seattle

Last week I read a heartbreaking letter to a Seattle landlord, which personalized the human cost of skyrocketing rents and dwindling affordable housing services in this city. We see this cost of living rising, and watch the value of life falling in Seattle. Folks are pushed out of the few remaining affordable apartments and into homelessness. In the U District and Capitol Hill, new 6-story condos are surrounded by the displaced.

Despite growth and a rebounding housing market, in Seattle the homelessness situation worsens. It’s important to emphasize that homeless numbers are going down, both nationally and in Washington State as a whole. This is our mathematical call to action, to at least be average!

KUOW recently reported more than 3700 people sleep outside in Seattle nightly. Over the past decade, King County and others have spent an estimated $1 billion to “end” all homelessness in Seattle, and frankly have little to show for their investment.

These numbers make me furious. Some simple math shows that rent for 3700 people, over 10 years, and assuming an average of $1000 per month, only adds up to $444 million. This is less than half of what we apparently spent fighting homelessness over the past decade. Where has this massive investment gone?

Here’s another quick calculation. One estimate for the cost of a new 6-story, 60,000 sq ft apartment building is around $10 million to construct. Let us assume this building has 60 single occupancy units, each unit thus costing around $160,000 (very cheap housing by Seattle standards). By this math, we could build brand new apartments for all of the folks sleeping outside and still only be out around $617 million.

Of course, these estimates grossly oversimplify the problem. It also totally ignores the tremendous effort in services given over the past decade by caring and hardworking people. How many more homeless folks would we have if not for the $1 billion already spent?

One thing is clear, however: we’re massively over-spending for how well we’re performing. The result is, in the best case, people of lower economic means are fleeing the city. In the worst case, they’re dying on our streets of a curable condition.

Spending millions or even a billion dollars to give free housing might seem crazy at a time when we can’t even fund our roads or metro systems properly. Yet, in states like Utah and Colorado they find giving a free or cheap place to live to those in need actually saves money. People with permanent homes become less of a burden on hospitals, shelters, food banks, and the police. Students with affordable rents go on to make this city great. Seniors who enjoy their retirements here give our city soul and meaning.

We need to immediately curb this trend of pushing seniors, students, and low-income workers out of the city. It’s time to make a real investment in the people of Seattle who don’t build airplanes or write software.