I think I posted this awhile back but it’s appropriate to do so again as a follow-up to yesterday’s post, this from the City Journal.
Seattle is under siege. Over the past five years, the Emerald City has seen an explosion of homelessness, crime, and addiction. In its 2017 point-in-time count of the homeless, King County social-services agency All Home found 11,643 people sleeping in tents, cars, and emergency shelters. Property crime has risen to a rate two and a half times higher than Los Angeles’s and four times higher than New York City’s. Cleanup crews pick up tens of thousands of dirty needles from city streets and parks every year.
At the same time, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, the Seattle metro area spends more than $1 billion fighting homelessness every year. That’s nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman, and child in King County, yet the crisis seems only to have deepened, with more addiction, more crime, and more tent encampments in residential neighborhoods. By any measure, the city’s efforts are not working.
Over the past year, I’ve spent time at city council meetings, political rallies, homeless encampments, and rehabilitation facilities, trying to understand how the government can spend so much money with so little effect. While most of the debate has focused on tactical policy questions (Build more shelters? Open supervised injection sites?), the real battle isn’t being waged in the tents, under the bridges, or in the corridors of City Hall but in the realm of ideas, where, for now, four ideological power centers frame Seattle’s homelessness debate. I’ll identify them as the socialists, the compassion brigades, the homeless-industrial complex, and the addiction evangelists. Together, they have dominated the local policy discussion, diverted hundreds of millions of dollars toward favored projects, and converted many well-intentioned voters to the politics of unlimited compassion. If we want to break through the failed status quo on homelessness in places like Seattle—and in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, too—we must first map the ideological battlefield, identify the flaws in our current policies, and rethink our assumptions.
Seattle has long been known as one of America’s most liberal locales, but in recent years, the city has marched even further left as socialists, once relegated to the margins, have declared war on the Democratic establishment. Socialist Alternative city councilwoman Kshama Sawant claims that the city’s homelessness crisis is the inevitable result of the Amazon boom, greedy landlords, and rapidly increasing rents. As she told Street Roots News: “The explosion of the homelessness crisis is a symptom of how deeply dysfunctional capitalism is and also how much worse living standards have gotten with the last several decades.” The capitalists of Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft, and Boeing, in her Marxian optic, generate enormous wealth for themselves, drive up housing prices, and push the working class toward poverty and despair—and, too often, onto the streets.
On the surface, this argument has its own internal logic. Advocates point to Zillow and McKinsey studies that show a high correlation between rent hikes and homelessness in Seattle, for example. But correlation is not causation, and the survey data paint a remarkably different picture. According to King County’s point-in-time study, only 6 percent of homeless people surveyed cited “could not afford rent increase” as the precipitating cause of their situation, pointing instead to a wide range of other problems—domestic violence, incarceration, mental illness, family conflict, medical conditions, breakups, eviction, addiction, and job loss—as bigger factors. Further, while the Zillow study did find correlation between rising rents and homelessness in four major markets—Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.—it also found that homelessness decreased despite rising rents in Houston, Tampa, Chicago, Phoenix, St. Louis, San Diego, Portland, Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Riverside. Rent increases are a real burden for the working poor, but the evidence suggests that higher rents alone don’t push people onto the streets.
Even in a pricey city like Seattle, most working- and middle-class residents respond to economic incentives in logical ways: relocating to less expensive neighborhoods, downsizing to smaller apartments, taking in roommates, moving in with family, or leaving the city altogether. King County is home to more than 1 million residents earning below the median income, and 99 percent of them manage to find a place to live and pay the rent on time. The aggregate-level analyses from Zillow and McKinsey don’t take into account the vast number of options available even to the poorest families; for the socialists, “the rent is too damn high” explains everything.
Using homelessness as a symbol of “capitalism’s moral failure,” the socialists hope to build support for their agenda of rent control, public housing, minimum-wage hikes, and punitive corporate taxation. One might dismiss Sawant as cartoonish, but she has been remarkably successful in stoking resentment against “Amazon tech bros” and building public support for punishing the “billionaire class” with new taxes.
What the socialists won’t, or can’t, see is that their agenda cannot solve the homelessness crisis. Even if the Sawant-championed “head tax” on big employers had stayed in force—it was repealed in June—the city would have built, at most, only 187 subsidized housing units per year, which means that it would take at least 60 years to provide housing for all those currently homeless. Sawant’s real passion, it seems, is not to build houses for the poor but to tear down the houses of the rich. When her ideas fail to usher in a socialist utopia, she’ll find new scapegoats—corporations, real-estate developers, tech workers, police—and start over.
The stubborn reality is that Seattle is expensive. The local government should encourage the creation of more affordable market-rate housing by increasing density and changing zoning laws, but for those not employed full-time—and that describes 92.5 percent of the homeless—it’s utopian to imagine that Seattle will become the city of Housing for All. No matter how many promises the socialists make, they will eventually run out of other people’s money. The scapegoats, silent up to now, will start fighting back. And Amazon, the greatest wealth generator in the city’s history, will simply leave town.
The compassion brigades are the moral crusaders of homelessness policy, the activists who put signs on their lawns that read: “In this house, we believe black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal,” and so on. They see compassion as the highest virtue; all else must be subordinated to it. Their Seattle political champion is City Councilman Mike O’Brien, a former chief financial officer for the corporate law firm Stokes Lawrence, who made his name in Seattle politics fighting to ban Yellow Pages deliveries and build a bike lane through a working shipyard in the Ballard neighborhood. In recent years, O’Brien has become a leader in the campaign to legalize homelessness throughout the city. He has proposed ordinances to legalize street camping on 167 miles of public sidewalks, permit RV camping on city streets, and prevent the city’s homeless Navigation Teams (made up of cops and outreach workers) from cleaning up tent cities.