The ugly secret hidden behind Seattle’s boom

February 24, 2016

Leela Yellesetty reveals the other side of the "new economy" that dominates Seattle.

IF ANY city in America is the symbol of the social crisis in the U.S., it is Flint, Michigan. Once a central engine of America's industrial economy, generating the wealth that turned the U.S. into a global superpower, the city was abandoned by Corporate America--and now it has been literally poisoned by the austerity agenda, its residents left to die.

On the other end of the country, Seattle is not Flint. If Flint represents the old economy, Seattle is the new one, home to Microsoft, Amazon and their growing armies of tech workers. The boomtown quality is evident in the ubiquitous construction cranes--Amazon alone plans to occupy 10 million square feet of downtown office space by the end of this year.

Seattle is a city with an unemployment rate of less than 3.5 percent, where 65,000 new jobs were added in the past five years, and median income is almost $20,000 higher than the national average.

But rising prosperity for some in Seattle has come at the expense of the immiseration of others. Recently, city officials have been forced to address the crisis of inequality head on, in the form of an explosion of homelessness.

Seattle's Nickelsville homeless encampment in the shadow of downtown
Seattle's Nickelsville homeless encampment in the shadow of downtown (David Lee)

THE YEAR 2015 was supposed to mark the culmination of King County's "10-Year Plan to End Homelessness." Instead, last year ended with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declaring a "state of emergency" around homelessness. Murray pointed out, among other sobering statistics, that 45 people died last year on Seattle streets, and Seattle Public Schools served more than 3,000 homeless children, or about one per classroom.

The news has only grown worse since then. In late January, the Seattle/King County Coalition to End Homelessness conducted its annual one-night count and found that a record 4,505 people were without shelter--a 19 percent increase from last year. As the coalition points out, this is most certainly an undercount as it is based only on the people volunteers were able to find. As Alison Eisinger, executive director of the coalition, said in a statement:

This is surely what an emergency looks like. One group of volunteers returned this morning and described seeing a couple with their 3-month-old baby living in a tent. Others reported seeing a group of young people in sleeping bags, and a family with young children in an RV. One team spoke with a man in wheelchair who described having been homeless for five years. A law student noted that his team saw a memorial to Stacy Fisher, a homeless woman who was murdered under the Magnolia Bridge last year.

Literally moments after Mayor Murray spoke at a rare prime-time press conference to address the homelessness crisis, a shooting at a homeless encampment known as "The Jungle" took the lives of two people and injured three others.

Unfortunately, this tragic shooting--carried out by teenagers as young as 13 who were collecting money from a drug deal for their mother--has been used by those who favor a punitive approach to "solving" the homeless crisis.

IN RESPONSE to plans to set up "safe lots" in Seattle neighborhoods where people would be allowed to sleep in their vehicles, city officials have been besieged by angry homeowners and business owners at public meetings.

Neighborhood groups have begun to organize foot patrols and hire private security in response to what they claim is a "crime wave" caused by homeless people, which is lowering property values. One Ballard business owner went so far as to spray water on the possessions of a person camping on the sidewalk.

The fact that the city has seen an overall decrease in property crimes in the past year doesn't seem to matter to these vigilantes. Nor, when they complain about finding IV needles on the sidewalk, do they pause to consider what social conditions may be driving a 58 percent increase in heroin deaths in Seattle last year.

Perhaps most disturbing is the assumption that the homeless are criminal "others" in someone else's neighborhood, rather than residents with rights, even though they have lost their homes.

In typical liberal fashion, Mayor Murray responded a disappointing "plague on both your houses" rhetoric. In his recent State of the City speech, for instance, he stated, "Our citywide discussion has taken on a divisiveness that I believe adds to the already overwhelming challenge"--as though the people who want a basic right to shelter and those who would push them away like so much trash are just heatedly voicing equally valid sides of an argument.

Homeless activists and advocates have pointed out that the mayor's proposals fall well short of providing enough shelter space, while the steep increase in police "sweeps" of illegal encampments (the number of sweeps rose from 80 in 2012 to more than 530 in 2015) only exacerbates the problem when there is nowhere for people to go. Moreover, the conduct of these sweeps has come under fire, with reports of police clearing camps without warning (which violates city policy), and destroying or confiscating residents' property.

Rather than a "solution" to homelessness, the sweeps are little more than "an expensive game of Whac-A-Mole that does little more than push homeless people around the city," as Real Change's Aaron Burkhalter put it. Their utility can be better understood as a response to the demands of developers and property owners to remove the eyesore of the dire poverty they themselves created.

THE ROOTS of this crisis are not difficult to uncover. As the Guardian recently observed in an article about Seattle's homeless crisis, a recent study showed that an increase of $100 in median rents results in a 15 percent increase in the homeless population. Seattle's rents have increased 12 percent in the last year. The average rent of an apartment within 10 miles of Seattle is $1,592 for a one-bedroom and $2,085 for a two bedroom.

Rents are going up because a high demand for housing in the city core means landlords can keep jacking up rents--and at least some can afford to pay it. According to a study by the Brookings Institute, as of 2013, the top 5 percent of Seattle households earned 10 times more than the bottom fifth. Those at the top saw the largest rise in income of any major city--a 14.9 percent rise in the course of a single year.

Meanwhile, the bottom 20 percent saw incomes decline slightly, to an average of $26,744 per year. Even with the gradual phase up to $15 an hour by 2017, there is simply no place that is affordable--defined as rent making up less than 30 percent of income--to live in Seattle on the minimum wage. This would include, of course, Amazon's growing ranks of warehouse workers and Amazon Prime Now delivery drivers.

As a result, increasing numbers of people are being pushed into the suburbs, with the tradeoff of long and costly commutes. Others are going into debt due to unaffordable rents or cramming more people in smaller spaces.

Then there are the dilapidated conditions. Approximately 27,000 people live in moderate to severe substandard housing in Seattle--and as some people have discovered, this hasn't stopped the rent from going up. In the past year, socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant helped expose slumlord Carl Haglund, who had attempted to more than double rents despite residents living with roaches, mold, exposed wire and other violations.

The crisis of affordability is compounded further for oppressed groups. Seattle has the largest gender wage gap of any city in the country, thanks largely to the male-dominated tech industry.

By 2040, people of color will account for 54 percent of the King County population. But in Seattle, 42 percent of Black people under 18 years old live in poverty, and white household income is twice that of Black household income. It's no wonder then that--along with veterans and LGBT people, especially youth--people of color are vastly overrepresented in Seattle's homeless population. They account for 60 percent of the homeless in a city that is 60 percent white.

It's not simply the influx of well-paid tech workers that is driving up housing prices, but also a flood of excess cash from investors looking for a safe bet in an increasingly unstable economy. As The Stranger's Charles Mudede noted, Seattle is emerging as major global destination for capital:

What many average Americans have a hard time realizing in the age of austerity is that the scarcity of capital is not real but imposed. Most of us, and the governments that represent our interests, have little or no access to this surplus cash. But the fact that it's hard to obtain does not mean it does not exist. It does, and in vast amounts. Not only that, this kind of cash has a problem that seems hard to believe: It struggles to find investment opportunities.

IN THE face of such massive wealth, Mayor Murray's suggestion that there is simply not enough money to provide adequate shelter to all residents rings hollow.

It is true that the City Council, by itself, is unable to achieve everything it would like. Sawant has campaigned on the issue of rent control, but the most she was able to achieve was a resolution opposing the statewide ban that currently exists.

Likewise, while Murray's proposal to increase property taxes will bring some needed funds, Washington is hampered by a lack of a state income tax--which makes it the most regressive tax system in the nation.

Nonetheless, the mayor and other city politicians should not be let off the hook for their cozy relationships with the very developers who are driving the crisis of affordability in Seattle.

The mayor's "grand bargain" on housing, otherwise known as the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), offers up-zoning to developers in exchange for building a certain number (5-8 percent) of "affordable" units--which is defined as affordable to someone making 60 percent of the median income. As some critics have pointed out, these measures fail to meet the city's own goals for the number of affordable units, while representing a boon to developers.

Meanwhile, even as Murray cries broke when it comes to the city's budget for emergency shelter, he is pledging to hire an additional 200 police officers. Leaving aside the absurdity that he justified this as an anti-racist measure even though the Seattle Police Department is under a consent decree from the Department of Justice, there is plenty of research showing that providing permanent low-barrier housing can lead to a cost savings by reducing the need for police and emergency services.

The reality is that the crisis of inequality in Seattle, as elsewhere, will not go away without a fight--and that means taking on those who are responsible for and benefit from it.

In order to do so, the vast majority of us who don't benefit have to find ways to unite and connect the struggles for food and basic shelter, health care, affordable housing, a living wage, union rights and social justice. If Seattle shows that it isn't just cities like Flint that are paying the price of growing inequality, it also shows we are all in this together.

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