Friday, August 21, 2020

Dear Seattle Governing Community

Read Time: 1 minute

Note: Yesterday (8/20/20) at the suggestion of Larry Coffman, editor of Marketing NW I sent the following to Seattle’s Mayor and each member of Seattle’s City Council. 

Goal: We must get the 12,000 or more homeless people off the streets and into housing. We must do this now. We must do this to make the streets safe for them and for all of us. We must do this to give those left on the streets an opportunity to get back into the mainstream economy.

Seattle is one of the most prosperous cities in the world. The current prosperity has made housing unaffordable and doesn’t employ everyone.

Amazon, Microsoft and the other giants have provided wonderful new jobs for many people. These are great companies. We’re lucky to have them.

Minimum wage used to be enough to pay for a modest apartment or even a small home. Not anymore.

I grew up in Seattle. My father wrapped packages for Sears in the fifties and sixties. My mother didn’t work. We had a nice home on Beacon Hill.

Step one. Turn every vacant hotel into housing. Get the hotel and real estate giants to manage. Do this now.

Step two. Provide entry level tech training for everyone who doesn’t have a job. Get the tech giants to manage and pay the housing and training costs.

Step three. Make Seattle the city where the world’s tech industry hires the most entry level employees.

8 Comments

  • Barbara Loftus says:

    Turning abandoned hotels into housing now could help to resolve the immediate challenges for housing. As the demand for office space declines with businesses choosing leaner, more cost effective at-home work arrangements, Seattle must plan for a wiser use of both work and affordable living spaces downtown. This includes repurposing former commercial spaces for a housing mix that includes affordable units and units for those in our communities who are without jobs and housing.

    • Ted says:

      Good idea Barbara. Thanks for your comment.

    • Patricia Flowers says:

      I like your solution..however, there are three distinct reasons for living on the street. 1. Unable to afford housing, you address these individuals 2. Those who have addictions which the accessibility of cheap street drugs and who do not want to conform to rules and regulations
      …how do you propose to house them?
      3. The mentally ill…these individuals need trained professionals to somehow get them to want help and treatment????
      I have worked with all three types of individuals as I advocate for their children (CASA… Court Appointed Special Advocate). All three groups need specific help…I wish I knew the answer!
      Good luck!

      • Ted says:

        Thanks Pat, Great to hear from you. And great points. All of which I agree with. I was trying to keep my note short. I have long felt that police should not be expected to deal with street people with mental health or drug problems. It seems like all the police can do is make people move along or put them in jail. Neither are good solutions for people or the police. In a city as prosperous as Seattle we should have qualified professionals to help people. It seems to me, and I’m not an expert, that seeking comfort in drugs and alcohol is logical thing to do if you’ve hit bottom. I’ve had my own bouts with drink to avoid feeling bad.

  • Philip Shaw says:

    I’m glad to see that respected business leaders like yourself are making your voice heard for those who can’t.

    Two points: I agree with Patricia that the link of mental health/treatment is essential. So much so that it IS Step One.

    Second point: Not all mental health or substance abuse is related to “hitting bottom”. That, along with referring to those experiencing homelessness as “street people” is reductive.

    • Ted says:

      Thanks for your comment Philip. I agree that using “street people” as a descriptor is “reductive.” Sadly, reducing complex situations to simplistic solutions happens all the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if Seattle’s Mayor and Council viewed my suggestion of housing people in empty downtown offices as a bit reductive.

  • Hi Ted! I just discovered your writing and have been reading a few of your articles. I thought I’d comment on this one.

    A few questions / challenges come to mind:

    1) Does the city actually have the ability to re-purpose hotels? The phrasing of getting the giants to manage seems like you’re saying to do so with some form of imminent domain – but a seizure of property on that level could have some pretty negative downstream effects on investment in the city.

    But perhaps you mean simply buying or renting the real estate outright – that might work for an emergency, but would seem prohibitively expensive for a city government to do on a long term basis. All to say – might there cheaper ways to house people (and ways that don’t require doing so in the heart of the city’s most expensive real estate)? I think about the “emergency hospitals” created in China during the pandemic – might we create an “emergency housing” effort on a similar basis, but in areas where land is cheaper and easier to come by?

    2) RE: Step 2. I like the idea but here I think there are probably meaningful differences between people who are unemployed (most of whom are not homeless) and people who are out of the labor force entirely (which would seem to apply to many people living with homelessness).

    The distinction between in/out of the labor force can be misleading when it comes to things like the overall unemployment level, but here it feels like it actually captures a meaningful qualitative difference in terms of people’s desire to acquire new skills / get a new job. Specifically, many of the folks who are living with homelessness (especially, as you noted in the comments, those struggling with addiction or mental health) might be unable or unwilling to learn the skills needed to be effective as an entry level tech employee. More to the point, job retraining programs don’t seem to work very well (e.g. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/01/the-false-promises-of-worker-retraining/549398/) even if people were willing to do them. Also, you’d run into a similar issue with respect to the city’s ability to (1) make the giants pay for this specifically, absent a tax of some kind (2) hire the people who come out of the training program. They might hire them, but they might not and I’m not sure the city could force the issue.

    Might it be better just to create some form of universal basic income or stipend for people living with homelessness? This could be part of a broader housing-first approach to helping the homeless in Seattle.

    3) It strikes me that the solutions provided position the city as an active player in the housing market and the labor market; effectively its asking the city to serve as some mix of urban developer / landlord and training/staffing agency.

    But this seems to pass over the most important power that the city *does* have – its role in shaping the structure of the housing and labor markets themselves. Generally speaking city governments aren’t great at being developers or at solving issues in the labor market directly (e.g. the saga of rent control policies is a great example of how well meaning city officials actually reduce housing availability and affordability for most people when they try to micro-manage it). But cities can be pretty good at creating the incentives and conditions that shape how other actors in the market make their decisions (e.g. zoning laws, regulations, affordable housing incentives, etc.).

    Have you considered asking the City to change zoning restrictions to encourage greater investment in new housing development or – more radically – explore experimenting with changes to the “warranty of habitability” which appears to have been a driving factor in rising rents since the 1970s? There’s a great freakanomics podcast on this issue which might have some additional ideas for structural changes that could reduce homelessness in the long term ( https://freakonomics.com/podcast/urban-flight-part-2/).

    Thanks again for the thoughtful articles!

    • Ted says:

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for your thoughts…

      1) Does the city actually have the ability to re-purpose hotels?

      I have no idea what the city can do under current law. What I do know is that Seattle has 11-12,000 homeless and with covid and work from home Seattle has millions of square feet of office space vacant. Office space that could easily be used to house people.

      This isn’t about money. It’s about peoples lives.

      2) Regarding tech training for homeless and those out of work.

      In the 30’s millions of jobs were created by government for those out of work. Jobs that used the technologies of the times to meet the needs of the times. So, we do have an example of this in our history. I’d like to see America create a modern equivalent focused on getting people above minimum wage into higher paying jobs.

      By the way the support needed by all the people getting trained for child care, cooking, transportation, art, dance, and related could be performed by those who don’t have the aptitude for the tech stuff.

      3) Massive grow in income for the lucky and talented few has driven the rise in housing costs. I’ve seen homes that sold for $100k in late nineties sell for over a million in the last few years. And the lowest apartment rents go beyond the ability of minimum wage renters to pay. So in my view it’s time for a rethink of our basic economics. Cause it’s not working for far too many.

      Maybe we should have universal basic income.

      And now that you got me thinking about it…

      -Our developed world is using far to much of Earth’s resources
      -While warming caused unrest is driving mass migrations

      Thanks again Alex!

Join the conversation, leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

*