Five years ago, King County and the City of Seattle declared a state of emergency on homelessness. Nevertheless, despite modest declines in subpopulations like families and youth, homelessness rates continued to rise almost every year.
As thousands of new workers arrived daily, the region’s affordable housing stock shrank. Rents skyrocketed, historic Black and Brown neighborhoods gentrified, homeless shelters swelled, and homelessness surged. So did racial disparities. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color—who had been systemically denied housing through redlining and racial convents, and who faced higher rates of poverty and discrimination through centuries of racist policy—disproportionately experienced homelessness. Profound economic prosperity for some created equally profound suffering for others.
False narratives that our homelessness crisis stemmed from “ineffective” government spending rather than a lack of funding or resources persisted. Yet, when Seattle’s Chamber of Commerce hired the national consultants McKinsey & Company two years ago to analyze the city’s housing stock and homelessness spending, the data told a different story. Spending was indeed growing, but, so too, was the need. King County needed an estimated $360 million and $410 million per year to address the crisis at scale. Using a “conservative set of assumptions,” a subsequent McKinsey study issued an even higher price tag, estimating a cost “between $4.5 billion and $11 billion over ten years” to end homelessness.
In the spring of 2018, the Seattle City Council attempted to pass the now failed Employee Head Tax to address the resource gap. The tax would have raised $20 million—a mere fraction of the need. Business leaders aggressively pushed back, launching the “No Tax on Jobs” campaign to gather signatures to overturn the tax. The City Council repealed the tax. The status quo endured.
Homelessness advocates have long argued that homelessness is a housing crisis, a public health crisis, and a moral crisis. As the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic ravaged our communities, the message became impossible to ignore. How can you socially distance in a homeless shelter crammed with hundreds of people in one space? How can you shelter-in-place when you have no home?
Suddenly, changes decades in the making happened overnight. Empty buildings were rapidly identified and transformed into isolation and quarantine facilities. Crowded homeless shelters were “de-intensified” and moved to hotels. Building permits were bypassed to build more tiny houses.
Along the way, another maxim proved true: if you diagnose homelessness like a medical condition, housing is the treatment. Within a month of moving Downtown Emergency Service Center’s (DESC) 200-person shelter to a Renton hotel, the number of violent or serious “red flag incidents” dropped by 75%: from 133 in April 2019 to 33 in April 2020. When residents had their own bit of peace and quiet—when they were afforded the dignity of their own bathroom, the privacy of their own bedroom—they began to stabilize and heal. Calls to police decreased. Housing, not jail, was the cure.
But looming budget deficits threaten to destroy progress. Washington State is projecting a $4.5 billion shortfall next year; the City of Seattle is estimating a $300 million gap. Meanwhile, one-sixth of Washingtonians are unemployed. Almost 30,000 residents have been infected; almost 1,300 have died. Low-paid essential workers, like grocery store, food processing, or human service professionals, face the highest risk of exposure and death; they are also disproportionately Black and Brown.
Urgent questions demand immediate answers. What happens when the moratorium on evictions is lifted and people who have lost their jobs cannot make rent? What happens when people return to work but face thousands of dollars in debt because of back rent or medical costs? What happens when families can’t afford to put food on their table? What happens in the fall, when the flu season converges with COVID-19, and the projected infection rates spike again?
Our city has a choice: we can perpetuate the status quo and let inequalities widen. Or we can challenge it and create a more just society. We can defund the police budget and invest in Black and Brown communities hardest hit by COVID-19 and institutionalized racism. We can redistribute excess wealth and build affordable housing. We can ground our social policies in dignity and equity so that no young person, no family, no adult, has to live outside, especially in the face of a deadly pandemic.
YouthCare chooses justice. YouthCare chooses equity.
We unequivocally endorse the new JumpStart Seattle proposal sponsored by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. This tax asks those in our city who have the most—those who are best positioned to help—to make a modest contribution to bending the arc toward justice.
Under the proposal, employers with payrolls between $7 million to $1 billion will pay a 0.7% tax on employees making over $150,000 annually, and 1.4% tax on employees making over $500,000 annually. For the first two years, funding will be invested primarily in supporting COVID-19 relief, housing, and small businesses. After 2022, 65% of the funding will go toward building affordable housing, and the remaining funds will go toward business support and equitable development initiatives.
We urge you to support this tax. A community with equal access and equal opportunity should not be an aspiration—it should be a reality. Help us make it a reality.