UW expert says the housing market is the key factor causing homelessness
Why does King County have a larger number of people living homeless than nearly everywhere else in the U.S.? The answer lies with housing market conditions, according to Homelessness is a Housing Problem, a new book by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern.
Colburn is an assistant professor of real estate at the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments. He spoke with KUOW’s Kim Malcolm about his research into what drives the prevalence of homelessness in various cities, and which solutions are most worth investing in.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Kim Malcolm: Tell me what got you started on this research?
Gregg Colburn: Well, my family and I moved to the region in 2017, when I began my work at the University. Since arriving, I've been heavily involved in conversations around the housing and homelessness crisis. After a couple of years it occurred to me that I felt like we didn't really as a community understand what the root cause of this crisis was, and as a result, our responses maybe were not as effective as they otherwise could be. And so the purpose of the book was really to answer a pretty simple question, why does Seattle have such a huge homelessness problem while there are other communities around the country that don't?
Often in the conversation around trying to understand homelessness, people will bring up substance abuse, or poverty, or generational trauma. It seems to imply that part of the fault lies with the people on the street themselves. Does that stand up in your research?
We have a long history in the United States of blaming individuals for outcomes that they achieve. As it relates to homelessness, that has continued. There's no doubt that poverty, substance use disorders, mental health disorders, increase the risk of an individual experiencing homelessness. There's no doubt about that. But what's interesting is when you take a step out and look at city-to-city variation. The places that have really high rates of homelessness, typically coastal cities on both east and west coasts, it's not that they have more poor people are more people who are addicted are more people who are mentally ill, what's happening is that there are people with vulnerabilities in every community around the nation. But the consequences of those vulnerabilities are much greater in places where housing is very, very difficult to access. And so affordable housing provides a real margin for error in life.
When you think about Detroit, it's the most impoverished city in the country, with the highest level of poverty in the country. And they have a far lower rate of homelessness. We know that poverty causes homelessness, so it's this kind of odd result when you think about it that way. The way that I explain it is that when rent is $600 a month, you can kind of figure it out through familial support, through public assistance, and through low-wage labor. When rent is $1,500 to $2,000 a month, the margin for error is very low. That's what we're living and experiencing here in Seattle. If you slip through the cracks, it's a pretty vicious market to have to find housing in.
And so here in King County, what are you faced with?
The two factors that we talk about in the book a lot are the cost of rents, median rents in a community, and then the vacancy rates. When you put Seattle up against other cities in the nation, what you'll see is we're one of the most expensive rental markets in the country. And our vacancy rate is really, really low. If you lose your housing for one reason or another, the chances of finding housing are, it's exceedingly difficult.
So based on what you know, what are the solutions?
When we blame people for this outcome, it almost absolves us of some responsibility. When we actually turn the conversation to more of a structural conversation to say that we just don't have sufficient housing for all the people who want to live here, that then means that we all as a community own this. And that's a little scary. And so ultimately, the fix here is that we need to construct a heck of a lot more housing of all types, market rate all the way down to supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness, and that's going to require some big changes. One is we need to change our built environment. We need to build more housing, we need more dense housing, and we have to think about our zoning. And for people who can't afford housing, we have to think about how we can make sure that they can access high-quality housing, that is necessary to have a productive life. Those conversations are certainly happening, and we are making important investments there, but to date, the investments haven't been sufficient to meet the scale of the problem, unfortunately.
What do you think it would take for us to actually take tackle this problem on all the fronts that you are talking about and actually make a dent in it?
The way I describe it is, unfortunately, and this is a brief history lesson, the federal government has taken a step away from supporting low-income households in terms of housing for the last 40 or 50 years. As a result, those issues have been pushed down to state and local governments to deal with. So, one in five people who are eligible for federal housing support actually get it. Those other four households now are turning to the state of Washington and King County and the city of Seattle saying, hey, I need some help. And that's expensive. Housing costs are the most expensive line item in the household budget.
Now, we're basically saying we need to figure that out at local levels of government that don't have the resources of the federal government. And so the dream scenario is that we get some action from Washington DC. An expansion of the voucher program would be huge in terms of making sure that everyone who was eligible would get a voucher that would provide purchasing power for those households. And if we could then pair that with a local commitment to increase our housing supply, such that people who have vouchers could find places to live, that would be, in my opinion, the dream scenario.
Your book has been out for a couple of months now. For folks who work on this issue, what have they told you?
I've gotten all sorts of reactions, both locally and from around the country. I would say a lot of people who work in the field of homelessness have been very supportive because this is something that they've known over time. And so there's been a lot of gratitude, which feels great. The feedback from the general public has been all over the map, some very supportive. And then I've gotten a lot of angry responses where people just say, you don't know what you're talking about, this is a drug and mental illness problem. I think it's a microcosm of the debates that we see about homelessness in the newspaper every day here in our community. There are strong opinions on all sides here.
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