Comment: Lack of housing supply is what’s behind homelessness

‘Bad choices’ aren’t the basic problem, but rather too few housing units for the region’s population.

By Fred Safstrom / For The Herald

The author of a recent letter to the editor disagreed with my comments on the causes of homelessness, stating “the only thing that leads to long-term homelessness is bad choices.”

Yes, individual choices do play a role, but I urge us all to look deeper. Housing Hope has walked alongside families experiencing homelessness for 35 years. The fact is that even when families do everything “right” there just isn’t enough housing that is available and affordable for low- or even some middle-income families. This systemic lack of housing options is what’s driving our local rise in homelessness; not personal choices.

Dr. Gregg Colburn, professor at the University of Washington, has led academic research examining why some cities have higher rates of homelessness than others. In his book, “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” he uses the analogy of musical chairs. Ten people race around nine chairs waiting for the music to stop. When it does, one ends up without a chair. If asked, that person may say they did not get a chair because they were not fast enough. But is that the root cause? Or is the root cause that there were not enough chairs for everyone? Now imagine substituting homes for chairs.

In Snohomish County, we do not have enough chairs (houses and apartments) for everyone, and we are especially short on chairs that work for people with low incomes and other barriers that make it hard to compete. And it is the “slowest” (those with disabilities or low incomes or perhaps having made “bad choices”) who end up without chairs (homeless).

Dr. Colburn’s research has proven that individual vulnerabilities such as poverty, substance abuse and behavioral health concerns do not explain regional homelessness trends. For example, Detroit has higher levels of poverty than Seattle, but lower rates of homelessness. Likewise, West Virginia has a much higher rate of illegal drug use than Seattle, but vastly lower rates homelessness. Why? Because these areas have an abundance of housing and the Puget Sound region does not. This should not be viewed as an isolated research conclusion as previous studies by the state of Washington’s Department of Commerce have consistently reached the same conclusion.

Most are well familiar with the basic economic principle of demand and supply. When demand and supply are in balance, prices are stable. When supply exceeds demand, prices fall. And when demand exceeds supply, prices rise. Our local experience of rising home prices and rents is clear evidence of our insufficient supply of housing. This rising cost of housing is directly correlated with the rise in homelessness. It is the root cause.

To solve this housing supply problem, we need to seriously address the lack of diversity in our housing stock, zoning codes that severely limit the creation of attached housing, growth management act restrictions, “newcomer” impact fees and myriad other regulatory barriers. Not only is the rising cost of housing resulting in increased homelessness, but it is decreasing the quality of life for all of us.

When you see people experiencing homelessness, it is easy to imagine the individual “bad choices” they have made in their lives. I urge you to look deeper, to see the bigger picture, and push our elected leaders for the systemic changes that can solve the root causes of homelessness.

The good news is that there are many stakeholders and leaders across our county who are working to create solutions with thoughtful proposals and policy change. Please support these solutions within each of our communities.

When the music stops, it is better for all of us if there are enough “chairs” to go around.

Fred Safstrom recently announced his retirement as chief executive officer of Housing Hope, a nonprofit that works to provide housing solutions throughout Snohomish County.

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