A focus on housing instead of homelessness: Panelists weigh in during Tuesday coffee chat

We think we have heard all the arguments about housing and homelessness:

“Poverty, drugs, mental illness, job loss, divorce cause homelessness”

“Left-leaning politicians and permissive policies bring in more homeless.”

“We don’t want multi-family housing in our community”

But what we have heard about housing and homelessness may not be “all the arguments.”

– Detroit has a lower per-capita rate of homelessness than the Seattle area.

– Are we fooling ourselves that drug and mental health treatment will let us “treat” our way out of homelessness?

-The nation cut homelessness among veterans in half in the last 10 years with new loan and housing programs.

Those were among the comments and questions raised during Tuesday morning’s online Coffee Chat hosted by the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County. The session about the root causes of local homelessness and housing needs drew more than 300 participants. The alliance is a countywide group established to “create economic growth and opportunities.”Board members come from Boeing, Premera Blue Cross, colleges and school districts, Alaska Airlines, United Way, the Navy and communities throughout the county.

Gregg Colburn, assistant professor of real estate, UW College of Built Environments

The keynote speaker, University of Washington Assistant Professor Gregg Colburn, was blunt: “We cannot end this crisis or materially put a dent in homelessness, if we don’t focus our time, attention, and action on creating more housing.”

Colburn researched and co-authored the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem. He did not research just the homeless. “If we care about our police, firefighters and teachers we need to construct a lot more housing and it needs to be more affordable,” he said.

Chris Collier, Alliance for Housing Affordability

Chris Collier, from the Alliance for Housing Affordability of Snohomish County, put the question to participants: “Where is the starter home for our community today? What does it look like? What should it look like? Is it being built? Because it should be.”

For many, that “starter home” is an apartment. The panelists said national figures show that a $100-a- month increase in rent is enough to force some people of out their apartments.

Joan Penney, Common Cause Partner Campaign

Panelist Joan Penney, who was speaking on behalf of the Common Cause Partner Campaign, pointed out that the average rent for a studio/one bedroom in the county is now $2,025; two bedrooms average at $2,400. “The reality is, that people experiencing homelessness are here; this is a ‘we’ issue, not an ‘us versus them’.”

Penney, who also serves as communications director at the non-profit Housing Hope, said we “have to get past the stereotypes we are expressing.” Colburn added that housing is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. Of the major cities he researched, 85% had Democratic administrations, Republicans 8%, Independents 7%. Yet his research showed that the Democratic strongholds of Chicago and Cleveland do not have the same per-capita homeless problems of Seattle. But ultimately, any discussion sparks a political debate; state and local lawmakers respond to what voters will accept.

Collier said that we and our leaders often overlook the real cost. The idea of providing “housing first” is expensive, he agreed, but it is cheaper than spending on emergency room visits, EMT, police and fire services. He cites Washington State Hospital Association figures that a one-month stay in a hospital bed runs $100,000, and a jail or prison cell costs taxpayers $6,000 to 8,000 a month.  Subsidized housing in this area, he said, runs about $1,100 a month for rent and maintenance.

Money – who pays – is always problematic. Colburn cites one study that says our region needs 37,000 new housing units for “extremely low-income” families. That same study estimates the cost at about $1 billion a year over 10 years to build those units. Colburn asks, rhetorically, that if we have found a way to spend $54 billion over 25 years for transit, why not housing?

The answer, he added, is that we view transit as a “public good” and housing as a “private good.” But the private market alone, he contends, “cannot address the needs of all people who need housing.” What communities should ask, Colburn said, is “how do we convince our lawmakers to focus more on funding housing than on homelessness…and are we doing what we can to make sure that we’re creating conditions to build more housing?”

The Common Cause Partner Campaign, which Penney is part of, says its purpose is to help focus on that:

“We know through our work that when there is a diverse and plentiful housing, homelessness declines significantly. We hope you join us in this effort to make Snohomish County a more livable and affordable place for all our community members.”

            — Common Cause Partnership Campaign – Snohomish County

The panelists agreed that fear is often the biggest obstacle to change. Gregg Colburn said, “fear is a big motivator that sticks with people… we have to honor that but put (the issue) in a bigger context.” Chris Collier of the Alliance for Housing Affordability said we think “more people are bad for me.” He reminded us that we already know, “this is not the Puget Sound region of 1975; unless Microsoft and Amazon leave, we are going to be a more dense place.”

Collier summed up what he and others hope: “Housing doesn’t have to be scary. It may be scary now when you think of urban centers with extremely intense development; but we can do different things with the form and shape of housing… we can do it differently.”

— By Bob Throndsen

  1. Interesting and worthy commentary regarding necessary areas of focus towards driving the development, and subsequent building processes of “low-income” housing. Once again, it’s all about the money. Questions still remain however with regard to creating housing for those “extremely low income” folks– a crying need unfortunately requiring both land AND money, or, I suppose, existing built properties suitable for ‘conversion’ to housing.

  2. You look at other city case studies from Utah, Minnesota to Colorado and Michigan and how they went about managing this issue (an issue that all cities face today), and there are similar planning and development strategies that have been successful that this city and our bordering cities can take note of and use as a framework for establishing local policy that allows affordable housing options to happen. The problem is it takes a majority buy-in and sacrifice of individual gain to make this work and an understanding that its a long-term investment. It’s not just extreme-to-low-income housing options that’s in peril, it’s also middle-income housing options too which exacerbates the crisis we’re in.

  3. “Democratic strongholds of Chicago and Cleveland don’t have the same per capita problems with homelessness as Seattle.” Brilliant! Has anyone else ever spent a winter in Chicago or Cleveland (Midwest) vs. a winter in the Greater Seattle area? Any differences in the weather factor of living outside during sub zero temperature periods between the two locations?

    I mean, do we actually pay these people for these studies and conclusions? It’s pretty simple; banks will happily fund developers to build McMansions on tiny lots for big profits; but tiny homes on large lots for little profits? Not so much.

    1. Its many things. The weather is probably a small part of it really. I think that states known for a lot of social services and then add the usually not such harsh weather and the political climate on the West Coast everywhere is a factor. The sad thing to me is that there are many places in our country where housing is affordable and jobs are available too, for all, with benefits. I am not trying to run anyone off at all it is just a fact. Any major city is more expensive to begin with and we are like a community next to a large city. I have checked states all over the country and found thru zillow many that are very affordable. SO some might want to consider that. It will never be affordable here to own your own home unless you have a very high income. Rent doubtful with our minimum wage. Subsidized rent, yes. But to own your own place its very difficult. WE don’t give people homes to own here or in any major city, I don’t believe. So just a thought. Try Ill MO IA TN AK, smaller towns and smaller cities.

      1. Deborah, I was born in the Midwest and lived there until I was 12 years old. I guarantee you that the winter weather in places like Chicago and Cleveland makes the likelihood of long term tent cities of the homeless living outside slim to none. Below freezing (to death) weather here might last up to just over a week or so while in the Midwest it can last weeks on end, rather than days. You simply can’t five outside with the almost guaranteed threat of that kind of weather. You could live in a car, I suppose, if you could afford the fuel to keep it warm. There is a reason places like, Seattle, Portland, L.A., Tucson, and even Maui have lots of homeless people trying to live outside in tents and makeshift shelters. It’s because they can. There is also a simple reason why places you mention cost less for housing too. You have to live there in that same miserable cold winter weather and too hot summer weather. I agree with you that weather is only a part of it, but it is often the deal breaker for outdoor living to work for the homeless.

        1. My father owned rental properties that were rented thru HUD in a town in MO. MO is about 80% Conservative however they also have compassion. Now it may not work for Drug offenders as in these states, Drugs are not Legal. SO yeah but we have many homeless who are not addicted so my suggestion was for them. Stanbury Uniforms who sell all over the country started in my little town and has three large companies now. Renowned for their style and workmanship. They pay upwards of 15 $ an hour and provide benefits and 3 weeks vacation a year. They design for huge events around our country and now have 2 more plants in the Midwest. THESE were the people I was speaking to when I wrote what I wrote. I was told that here many are just displaced from their homes they can no longer afford. So it was just a suggestion for those who want to be self sufficient. Nothing more just trying to help. I am well aware of the weather. Its much worse in many states too BTW. Pride in ownership is huge fuel is under 3$ a gallon now in MO btw. Not here.

  4. It’s interesting that being unhoused is so heavily stigmatized, but nobody wants to house people properly. Everybody has the same set of basic needs: healthy food, clean water, clean air, and viable shelter. It’s only when those needs are met that a person can set about improving their situation for themself, and when a basic need as important as shelter becomes an insurmountable obstacle for so many people, it’s irresponsible to look away from the factors that have made it so–and no; it isn’t the behaviors of any one person, city, or political party that have created this problem. Housing is too expensive in Washington State, and the current rate of spending for affordable housing is not enough to cover our population growth rate. The two need to correlate, and there needs to be a radical shift in social attitudes towards extreme poverty, and the people who experience it. The social Darwinism of the last century has to be abandoned in favor of a more compassionate vision–otherwise, expect to see things get worse.

  5. Recently the City used $400,000+ of “recovery funds” to deal with water problems at Civic Park??? While it may have been legal several folks I have talked with expressed concerned that this was not morally correct. With so many folks still impacted by the pandemic, we could have found better ways to use these funds. $400k could provide 4000 nights of motel vouchers. That 11 folks for a whole year. $400/ month of rent assistance would be 1000 months of rent help. We can all do the math of how this $400k could have been used to help people. REET funds, General Fund dollars and other revenue sources could have been used and targeted the $400k for the primary intent of the Federal $. Sad!

  6. I rent a HASCO owned 1-bdrm apartment in Edmonds and Coast Real Estate is the manager. The apt complex was built in 1989 .. 33 yrs ago. Yet, rent increases in 2019, 2021 and 2022 were 15% each year. 2022 rent increase totals $3,000/yr. Why? This is a dated property.. not newly constructed. My income is $1,441/month … rent is $1.395/mo and utilities are extra (PUD, Conservice, etc). My apartment has not been renovated, yet I pay same price as a renovated apartment. Numerous tenants are moving because broken appliances and ratty carpeting are not replaced as well as other issues. Why is this happening when the rent increases are sky-high?

    Investigate HASCO:
    1) are they tax-exempt?
    2) how much does Coast Real Estate get paid?
    3) why is HASCO not involved with the Multi-family tax exemption since there are no Section 8 applications being accepted … and seniors are way-down on the list.

    Always a lousy excuse but no smart or helpful solutions!!

    1. Christine,

      HASCO is non-profit, therefore tax exempt. The Edmonds Highlands property (where you live) became tax exempt when purchased in 2001 by HASCO. MFTE is a multi year tax exemption (typical 12 yr) to the developer for all residential when a % (typical 20%) of the units are reduced rent. MFTE has been falsely represented as providing affordable housing. It does not. Neither MFTE or Edmonds Highlands offers affordable housing per the RCW (Revised Code of Washington) definitions.

      Duane Leonard, Executive Director of HASCO, replied in an email question from me in 2021 in part, the following:

      “the affordability restrictions that apply [to the Edmonds Highlands property] come from the housing authorities law codified in Chapter 35.82, specifically RCW 35.82.070 (5). The requirement here is that 50% of the units be rented to persons below 80% of the area median income.”

      80% of the 2021 AMI for Snohomish County was $63,350/1 person. Link:


      Clearly, HASCO is not providing affordable housing at the Edmonds Highlands property.

      Council established an inter local agreement (ILA) with HASCO last year. I suggest you write Council@edmondswa.gov. If you want more information, ask Teresa Wippel for my email address.

  7. Build it and they will come from far and wide to take advantage of our generosity. Yes housing is expensive and many fall on hard times and I am not against giving them a hand up. But many have no intention of improving themselves no matter what is offered. What are we to do with these people are we to build housing for them in our neighborhoods so they have a roof over their heads and no accountability for their actions like thieving for there drugs. Do we hold givin units while they do their jail time so they have a place when they get out or do we allow ourselves to be victimized indefinitely because we won’t prosecute theft. I see the need for more housing and some of it taxpayer subsidized but I see no benefit to housing people that will just continue to be a burden society without any strings attached. All this failing up in society is getting out of hand

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