To Meaningfully Address a Problem One Must First Understand It
Despite nearly four years of Mayor Woodward’s administration policies and money spent it is obvious that Woodward’s signature election issue, (visible) homelessness, is little changed. It is past time to re-focus.
The article by Matthew Anderson, Ph.D., Professor of Urban & Regional Planning at EWU, that I have pasted below from RANGE Media should be required reading for every American. You cannot fix a problem without understanding and addressing its roots. Hint: It is not a fundamental failure of morals—as some would have us believe.
Keep to the high ground,
Click on the underlined title below to see additional content from this article, become acquainted with RANGE Media, and consider becoming a paid subscriber to RANGE. The young people at RANGE are doing important work in our community. They deserve our support.
Spokane — and America — will never fix homelessness until it gets serious about providing housing for all levels of the market.
Editor’s Note: I first started worrying about the connection between housing affordability and homelessness in Spokane in 2017, when many of the young artists we worked with at Terrain began telling us rents were rising so much, they were worried about losing their housing altogether. From the 2019 elections to today, I’ve been deeply frustrated by how little effort our leaders or the media have put into publicly connecting the dots between the twin crises of housing and homelessness, then using that lens to build policy around. We can’t even really bring ourselves to have the conversation. Instead we spend the vast majority of our time and energy on visible homelessness, mental health and drug abuse, which is like putting bandaid after bandaid on an arterial bleed: it might look like it’s helping, but it’s time and labor intensive, and doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Until you repair the artery, the bleeding is going to continue below the surface. Eventually, the patient will bleed out.
When the RANGE team read Matthew Anderson’s recent paper on the reactionary role of private business groups on public homeless policy in Spokane and Portland, we asked if he was interested in using expertise to draw those connections, and hopefully ignite an expansive conversation about alleviating homelessness with truly holistic housing policy. Here’s that piece. It’s long, but this stuff is complicated, and deserves so much more attention than it has been given to date. Give it a read, and share it around — Luke [Baumgarten]
Homelessness has increased dramatically in recent years in Spokane, becoming a major topic of public debate. It was the biggest issue in the 2019 mayor’s race, by far, and it has only become more central as the housing crisis has worsened.
The number of unsheltered Spokanites in 2017 was 138 according to the Regional Point-In-Time (PIT) Count. By 2023, the figure was 955. The rise in housing prices over the same period has been just as dramatic: In 2016, the median home sales price in Spokane was $172,000. It peaked in 2022 at above $430,000. In the first half of 2017 (when the PIT count was calculated), the average rent in Spokane County was $913, according to the Washington Center for Real Estate Research. Today, it’s $1,314, a 44% increase.
Over that same period, the average wage in Spokane has grown about 25% (from $22.75 per hour in 2017 to $28.56 in 2022), but the inflation rate over that same period is roughly 22%, nullifying many of those gains. Approximately 31% of Spokanites earn less than $17.50 per hour according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s no wonder that, out of nearly 1,000 Spokane renters surveyed last year, 60% reported having to take out a loan to pay rent.
These figures are in no way unique to Spokane, but reflect a broader national phenomenon. As a professor in urban planning at Eastern Washington University who studies the connection between housing market dynamics and homelessness, I find myself in the odd situation of straddling two very different worlds related to this topic. In many communities like Spokane, the academic knowledge about the drivers and effective management of homelessness — which generally focuses on finding enough affordable housing to keep people off the streets — is starkly disconnected from the public debate — which overwhelmingly focuses on issues like drug use and mental health struggles that tend to show up in visibly unsheltered people.
While drawing on my own research findings from a study I just co-authored with my students, I hope to bring these two disparate worlds into much closer dialogue in an effort to provide readers with the broader historical context on this topic that I find to be missing in the public consciousness.
Context of a crisis
Homelessness has been around in the United States since the founding of our country. However, there is a consensus in urban studies scholarship (1, 2) that the surge in homelessness that we are experiencing today can be traced to policy reforms that were implemented in the 1980s by the Reagan Administration. Specifically impactful was the large-scale withdrawal of federal funding from local governments and cuts to social welfare programs (like public housing) and mental health institutions.
Cities used to rely much more heavily on federal funding to balance their budgets. Under Reagan, this was deemed a form of welfare that needed to be cut to discipline local governments into finding their own sources of tax revenue. Consequently, maintaining public housing was no longer prioritized (nor was anything else that did not generate revenue). This is also the moment when homelessness became linked to mental illness, as those who were previously housed in federally funded mental health institutions were now pushed out onto the streets.
Our country has slowly and methodically whittled away our social safety net and the impacts of this have been extensively examined in urban studies and beyond. Most strikingly, this immediately resulted in homeless epidemics in the most expensive cities in the 1980s, particularly New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, as demonstrated in landmark publications at the time by urban scholars like Michael Dear, Jennifer Wolch, Neil Smith, and Mike Davis. This epidemic has since spread across the country to mark the experience of any metropolitan region where the gap between average wages and housing prices has widened, which has been happening in Spokane since around 2016.
In a capitalist economy, the unfortunate fact is there is no incentive for the private housing market to invest in housing that is affordable to the lowest wage earners, as every other type of housing promises greater profit margins. Without sufficient public investment in subsidies for low-income housing, some degree of homelessness is inevitable. This is not opinion, but a lesson we have known for well over 100 years, since horrific housing conditions in European and North American cities prompted governments to intervene in the form of public housing and eventually led to the first notable public housing investment in the 1910s and 1920s in Europe.
Without substantial government involvement, a housing market driven by profit maximization does not serve the least fortunate members of society, an uncontroversial reality reflected in most urban planning textbooks.
It seems like this is a lesson we have forgotten in the US, as nearly every other industrialized country in the world has a much better track record of using social housing to tackle homelessness.
When this topic is discussed and debated in the US, it is as if the world ends with the boundaries of the US, which has led to the common impression that homelessness is impossible to solve.
The experience of subsidized housing in the rest of the industrialized world, though, suggests that public housing is not a failed idea. The failure is in how the US administered it. It is also not a coincidence that homelessness barely exists in countries with robust subsidized housing, social welfare, and tenant rights legislation, such as Denmark, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, and Japan, among many others.
If defunding our social safety nets has set the stage for this crisis today, this is not to imply that we have spent nothing to address and manage homelessness in the US. Quite the contrary. Funding has instead poured into shelter facilities with myriad service providers on the front lines managing the complex dynamics in play for each unhoused person they are assigned to help.
However, in the 1990s and 2000s, the general approach taken by elected and prominent business leaders across the US was rooted in criminalization, noting the proliferation of what are often characterized as “anti-homeless” laws (e.g., sit and lie ordinances, camping bans, public park closure times, etc.). The goal was to stereotype and consequently demonize the unhoused in the media as drug-addicted sociopaths unworthy of public assistance, and a means of gaining public support for these laws which, effectively, criminalized the very act of being homeless.
Not only were the unhoused victimized by an increasingly deregulated housing and labor market, but the spaces they are forced to occupy were now increasingly taken away from them (at least without committing a crime), a visceral reality notably examined by Jeremy Waldron, Nick Blomley and Don Mitchell, among many others. The visibility of homelessness, especially in downtown retail corridors, was deemed the primary problem. While solving homelessness might require big investments in housing, the thinking was that cities could arrest their way out of visible homelessness relatively inexpensively. This tactic was pursued and tested in most large US cities experiencing homelessness as a way of “taking back the city.” After 15-20 years of this approach, however, coupled with the effects of the Great Recession in 2008, it became clear the tactic failed. It has proven to be an endless mission, as homelessness has only worsened and proliferated across the country, with jails and prisons becoming our de-facto mental health institutions. (We can see the conclusion of these policies where better mental health outcomes are being used to argue for building a new jail. — editors)
The approach taken today, as examined by Chris Herring, Jessie Speer, Brian Hennigan, Geoff DeVerteuil, and Antonin Margier, among many others, is one where the unhoused are generally portrayed in more compassionate language, though many of the same “anti-homeless” laws are still in place, alongside stepped-up funding for expanding and increasing shelter capacity and services with increasing and active involvement from private-sector coalitions. This is only a band-aid: imagine that we are in an emergency room, and that we are experiencing a surge of people entering the waiting room with traffic-related injuries. We should absolutely invest in adequate staffing, operating rooms and bigger waiting rooms, so that we can quickly treat people with serious injuries.
But we must also address why the streets have become less safe.
If the streets were much safer, we wouldn’t have so many injured patients entering the waiting room, and it probably wouldn’t be as costly, either. Crisis-prevention costs are usually less than dealing with the crisis after the fact. This is, again, more or less substantiated by the experience of the rest of the industrialized world. And it isn’t just true of countries who have had robust public housing policy for decades. Finland has successfully lessened homelessness by 80%, turning many unhoused people into paying renters, through actions implemented in the last decade.
Until we recognize homelessness begins with a massive lack of housing at the lowest-income section of the market, we have every reason to assume that homelessness will only persist, and will likely get worse. More and/or greater enforcement of “anti-homeless” laws, increasing shelter capacities, and even improving our collaborative response (as implied in the new “Spokane Unite” initiative to create a new regional development authority) will do little without creating the necessary affordable housing units.
Merely enabling the private sector to build more units, as is almost always championed by the real estate industry, will also do nothing to alleviate this crisis unless the units are affordable to the lowest-wage earners in the region. The past 100 years of evidence suggests that the private sector will fail to do this without sufficient public subsidies to make it worth their while.
A common mantra in the real-estate industry is that we just need to lower the barriers to development, as in increasing the urban growth area, lessening development fees, etc., and making development more attractive to more investors. The result will be more units on the market at all levels, and prices will adjust accordingly.
But when this hypothesis has been tested (particularly by economic sociologists and planners), the results have been mixed at best, and while it certainly serves the interests of developers and builders, more new units do not necessarily lead to falling prices, contrary to conventional supply-demand logic. In fact, following a report by David Giles in 2017, central Seattle experienced both increasing vacancies and increasing prices, all after years of Seattle trying to build its way out of the affordable housing crisis with tall apartment and condo projects of mostly market-rate units.
New housing construction is often followed by increases in prices, not decreases. In short, housing markets are almost always mediated by myriad socio-political dynamics which render the “build more, and prices will drop” hypothesis anything but a foregone conclusion.
Hostility at visibility
All things considered, Spokane’s housing crisis has come relatively recently, well after many larger cities tried the solutions above and found them inadequate or completely ineffective.
Rather than take those lessons and work with what are emerging best practices, the dominant approach taken by much of Spokane’s coalition of government and private-sector interests follows the now well-tested-and-failed approach of criminalization. This approach is veiled by compassionate language like in other cities (e.g., Portland, San Diego, Seattle, etc.), but attendance at various public symposiums and venues on this topic in Spokane casts the impression that invested private sector actors are only concerned about the visibility of unhoused people in the downtown corridor.
Because addiction and mental illness is what we tend to see, it is easy to conclude that all homeless people are afflicted with these conditions. We typically don’t realize that many more unhoused people remain out of sight, as there are just as many (if not more) who do not suffer from addiction and/or mental illness, at least based on the past few decades of PIT counts across the country.
But if a person’s status as unhoused is not visible, then their presence is not necessarily threatening the profit margins of downtown businesses, nor is it applying pressure on elected officials. Indeed, such people might as well not exist. As such, as our recent study concludes (although the rhetoric has shifted somewhat recently), invested private sector actors and allied elected leaders do not seem to care about homelessness itself. Homelessness only becomes a problem when it is visibly threatening consumer traffic on the street.
It should not be surprising, then, that addiction and mental health are overwhelmingly the focus in this approach, as these two conditions are what makes homelessness a problem for affected downtown businesses, not the fact that these people are unhoused, which unfortunately only perpetuates this myth in the public consciousness.
I do not want to cast the impression that I do not have sympathy for the plight of downtown businesses affected by this, but merely to make the point that the approach being taken does not serve anybody’s interest, including their own. Conversely, however, there are many other practitioners in the region that project a more genuinely compassionate attitude informed by the sentiment that nobody should be unhoused in the most affluent country in the world.Another myth is that the unsheltered homeless choose not to go to a shelter because they’d rather stay on the street to do drugs. Again, decades of surveys, ethnographies and PIT count data has shown that the top reasons people don’t go to shelters is because of fear of theft, violence, sexual assault, anxiety and certain shelter rules (i.e., pets not being allowed). Evidently, many unhoused people have deemed the streets safer than our shelters. And even if all unhoused people did suffer from addiction and/or mental illness, how can we explain the fact that the vast majority of people who suffer from mental illness do not become homeless? This, then, cannot be the explanation.
All of these factors can make it hard to make ends meet to maintain housing. Now factor in the widening gap between wages and housing prices sapping people’s income and savings, and it’s pretty clear why we have more vulnerable households than we had 10 years ago in Spokane. In fact, this metric alone — the gap between average wages and housing prices — has been shown to determine homeless levels with striking predictability across the US, as exhibited most powerfully by Greg Colburn and Clayton Aldern in their book, Homelessness is a Housing Problem.
If you are not lucky enough to have a sufficient support network of friends or family willing or capable of taking you in, then you might find yourself on the street. And in fact, that is exactly what we have seen in Spokane since 2017, with numbers shifting sharply upward during the pandemic. If housing had not become so expensive in Spokane, then the segment of unhoused people dealing with addiction/mental illness would more likely be able to manage these conditions behind closed doors (like most other people suffering from these conditions).
Rising housing prices leave us all drowning
So, if escalating housing prices alongside stagnant wages without sufficient subsidized housing and mental health treatment options has produced this problem, what has actually caused housing prices to rise so dramatically in Spokane? A number of factors should be noted: it is no secret that the Spokane region has been inundated with migrants from much more expensive urban regions. Even with housing prices more than doubling in Spokane since 2016, Spokane is still comparatively a much better value than, for example, San Francisco where the median home sales price peaked at over $1.6 million in 2022.
While I understand why someone might relocate to Spokane for this reason, you are, at least to some degree, actively contributing to this escalating problem when doing so, as well as others who “flip” older homes to cater to this emergent pool of prospective buyers. If we had substantially more subsidized housing for those priced out of the market, then this wouldn’t necessarily matter. But that’s not the city — or nation — world we live in.
In fact, since 2010, what low-income rental stock exists across the US has increasingly become the property of just a handful of large-scale investment firms and real estate investment trusts, entities that are also increasingly investing in each other’s portfolios, according to a recent study by Renee Tapp and Richard Peiser.
The result of this trend is that prospective home buyers begin to downscale their expectations by considering housing that they would not have previously considered, with the lowest-income buyers pushed out of the market altogether and onto a rental market where, consequently, vacancies have evaporated.
In this environment, landlords are able to raise rents and evict those who cannot afford the new rent or cash out by selling to developers or wealthier people who would intend to owner-occupy. In many cases, the tenant gets evicted and affordable housing for the lowest segment of the population vanishes, with nothing taking its place at the bottom of the market.
I have had multiple students in my classes at EWU tell me that this has happened to them. Landlords who do this are contributing to the problem, which further underscores the inherent conflict of interest for private landlords serving low-income populations.
The moment there’s more profit to be had, you can expect people to cash out.
Combine all of this with the fact that the majority of Spokane consists of single-family homes, which are the least efficient way of housing people, constraining our ability to increase supply. And while recent zoning changes have made it easier to build multifamily housing across all of Spokane, that does not mean those units magically flash into existence.
The other problem here is NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard), where nobody wants to live in a community with multifamily housing, which seems to be code for “poverty” in the minds of many. The fear is that new multifamily apartment buildings will result in declining property values.
While I can understand this sentiment as well, the actual evidence of this happening is mixed, and in some cases the new market construction has resulted in increased property values in the surrounding area. Regardless, resisting the building of new housing units (for whatever reason) is also actively contributing to this problem.
When I broach the subject of more subsidized housing in conversation (with family, friends, students, developers, policy makers, etc.), I am often met with comments like “This is America, this isn’t realistic here.” If this is, in fact, true, then it suggests there is something intrinsic about the United States that makes this a bigger problem than in other countries. It means we — as Americans — all share in some responsibility and, thus, burden for (wittingly or not) subjecting more of our less fortunate fellow Americans to this cruel fate.
Our long national (and local) crossroads
In the context of homelessness, Spokane, and America more broadly, is at a crossroads, and we need to ask ourselves about our priorities: How much is it worth to live in a society without homelessness?
Since the Great Recession, homelessness has been on the rise globally. Wealthy European countries like Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom that implemented sizeable austerity budget cuts to subsidized housing programs and tenants rights legislation have, predictably, seen notable increases in unhoused individuals. Yet, the phenomenon still tends to pale in comparison to the US.
A particularly strong approach that has received notable praise internationally is Vienna’s housing program. First, Vienna is among the biggest producers of public housing in Europe, and it looks nothing like the tenement housing projects that marked the US experience. It also comprises a mix of housing types (including high-rises, low-rise apartments, townhomes and others), that are difficult to visually distinguish from market-rate housing and are not as segregated from the rest of the city. Perhaps most importantly, the buildings are well funded and maintained, with modern amenities like swimming pools, not typically associated with public housing. As a result, not only do Austrian housing policies allow middle-class people to apply to live in these buildings, the buildings are nice enough to attract the middle class, resulting in real mixed-income neighborhoods.
This system also allows people more autonomy: once tenants begin making more money, they are not kicked out. They are allowed to stay if they wish, which means that most public housing over time has become more mixed-income, rather than the concentrated poverty that plagued US experiments in public housing during the 20th century. It is also not stigmatized to the same degree either, as up to 44% of the housing stock in Vienna is socialized (as of 2019).
In Austria, then, the society is in agreement that public housing isn’t just a social good, it’s culturally desirable.
And cities like Vienna are by no means cheap to live in. The median Vienese home sales price is over $1.3 million this year, but homelessness is kept comparatively in check so long as the government continues to produce the requisite affordable housing units. According to a report by Roger Rudick, Vienna has more than twice the population of San Francisco (1.9 million to 887,000). Yet, San Francisco has over four times the number of unhoused individuals. Vienna also has three times as many housing units in total (1,050,000 compared to 340,140), with a much higher share of this housing deemed affordable to low-income populations due to government intervention, subsidies and more favorable tenant rights.
Nearly 80% of the population in Vienna are renters, and public housing tenants pay only a fifth of their post-tax income on housing. Some pay as little as 10%.
Homelessness still exists in Vienna, to the tune of 2,200 unhoused individuals per a recent report — roughly the same as the 2,300 documented in Spokane during this year’s PIT count — yet Vienna has over 8 times as many residents as Spokane.
The caveat here is that other countries often have varying definitions of homelessness which render direct comparisons of this nature to be problematic, but one thing is fairly certain: visible homelessness is markedly lower in Vienna as well, as with cities like Copenhagen, Oslo and Helsinki. These are also not countries without addiction and mental health problems, but the safety nets are generally still in place to keep these people housed.
It’s important to ensure everyone in Spokane has access to mental health and addiction support if they need it. Until we get serious about re-evaluating the merits of subsidized housing and stronger tenant rights legislation, though, homelessness in Spokane and other cities like it in the US is all but guaranteed to stay.
Matthew Anderson is a professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Eastern Washington University, and is the co-author of a recent paper that examines the role of for-profit businesses, non-governmental organizations and private-sector coalitions in shaping municipal responses to homelessness that punish and retaliate against the unhoused. The paper studied responses in Portland and Spokane.