There’s no place like home

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

You could make the argument that there have always been homeless people – in every culture and every era. You could also make the historical case for the premise that humans have been nomadic wanderers for millennia and the concept of a settled, permanent ”home” for the average person or family is a relatively new idea in the past two centuries or so.

Both of those statements are factually accurate; they are also irrelevant.

Homeless people in our alleys, vacant lots and in our public spaces is not something we are accustomed to – and my argument is that we should never get accustomed to it. A few homeless people – those evicted or who have, one way or another, chosen a life without stable shelter, will, perhaps, always be with us. But homeless families and “communities” should not be acceptable to any community that would like to consider itself “civilized.”

There will always be those marginalized by “urban renewal” and cultural and economic changes. But families and large groups experiencing extended bouts of homelessness are a social barometer that tells us that something is wrong with our system.

King County, in 2017, had the third highest rate of homelessness in the country – only New York City and Los Angeles had more. If you’ve been paying attention to the cost of rents in Seattle, you know that number will only go up.

The vast majority of those who are currently homeless (about 80%) grew up here. That means that they went to our schools and lived in our neighborhoods. Many of them used to be our neighbors – maybe even our childhood friends.

In King County there were 1,518 unaccompanied teens and young adults (people under age 24) experiencing homelessness.

You can see details on the 2018 King County homeless count here – https://patch.com/washington/seattle/2018-king-county-homeless-count-unsheltered-population-grows or here https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/new-homeless-count-in-king-county-shows-spike-in-number-of-people-sleeping-outside/.

This homeless encampment in downtown Tacoma persisted for several months. Photo: Morf Morford

This homeless encampment in downtown Tacoma persisted for several months. Photo: Morf Morford

One of the central premises of capitalism is that the “invisible hand” of the market will correct any social or economic imbalances. The law of supply and demand will ensure that access and equilibrium will be available and sustainable. If rents are too high, tenants will go somewhere else or look for alternatives, if rents are too low, landlords will go out of business or cut essential expenses like maintenance.

At least that’s how it is supposed to work.

As with almost every other category of life in 2018, that is not how the system works now.

By some counts, in the past few years we have had up to six vacant homes for every homeless individual (for similar reasons, this is also true in Europe, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/23/europe-11m-empty-properties-enough-house-homeless-continent-twice).  (1*)

Housing not only needs to be what people want, it also needs to be where people want.

In a sense, perhaps, people are still nomadic.

There are several cities, a few states, and even a few countries where they will offer you a home, and perhaps some financial incentives to move there. See https://nypost.com/2017/10/24/these-cities-and-countries-will-pay-you-to-move-there/ or https://smartasset.com/mortgage/us-cities-that-will-pay-you-to-live-there or http://www.businessinsider.com/places-in-the-us-that-will-pay-you-to-move-there-2017-11#marne-iowa-2

In a way, housing is the ultimate math problem. How do you get market-priced housing where people want it? And how do you zone, plan and build for housing needs and preferences for the indefinite future?

China’s infamous “ghost cities” are a testimony to the mismatch of construction and habitation (https://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2017/01/04/a-look-at-chinas-ghost-cities/#12c4c12f64b0).

Seattle has had a building boom the past couple of years – but also a continuing growth in homelessness.

Yes, there is more housing in Seattle, but who can afford it? And is it enough?

Will it ever be enough? In five years, will it be too much?

There are answers to this problem – some deceptively simple, while others are just plain deceptive.

How about short review of some basic facts; first, housing does need to be affordable (about 30% of net income), second, it needs to be an appropriate size for a family or individual and third, it needs to be in the right place.

If a builder can make those three elements balance, everyone wins.

But until then, how about these as solutions?

Thanks to Uber, how about Uberizing your home instead of your car? Is this genius or a fast track to debt and bankruptcy? If you have a home, and a bit of extra space, there are investors who will “help” you Uberize your home (https://nwcitizen.com/entry/uberization-of-your-backyard-instant-debt-creation).  (2*)

Are backyard cottages a solution or a cure worse than the disease? Here’s the latest from Seattle on backyard cottages - https://crosscut.com/2018/06/seattle-ready-take-backyard-cottages-mainstream?utm_source=Crosscut+Daily+(two+ads)+June+4&utm_medium=email

But are accessory dwelling units (ADUs) taking us where we want to go?

I’ve been for and against ADUs. I live in a neighborhood of older homes, many of which have been converted to multi-family dwellings. Some have done it well and are maintained and blend in with the neighborhood others are tacky if not a blight.

The questions might be – are these what we and our neighbors want? Will the next generation thank – or curse – us for what we have done?

 

(1*)    For an excruciating level of detail on the dynamics of housing built and housing occupied, check out this website – http://lenkiefer.com/2017/09/17/housing-vacancy-trends/.

(2*)    This plan strikes me as another version of reverse mortgages. They might be a good idea for some, and a financial disaster for others.