In recent months, homelessness has become a focus of citizen and city action in Olympia. Homelessness has myriad causes. These range over a landscape of natural disasters, poverty, job loss, marital and family issues, substance abuse, recessions and depressions, housing boom and bust cycles, criminal convictions, and so on and so on.
I contend that there are two basic categories. I will call them temporary and refractory. Temporary is caused by ill chance and is amenable to reversal without support longer than about a year. Refractory is resistant to treatment and often results from substance abuse and psychological issues.
It is clear that the highly visible homelessness in Olympia is refractory. The City Council commissioned a survey and fully 51 percent of those asked cited "homelessness" as the primary issue in the city. The council is now on the way to instituting a new tax to fund action to address the issue based on the Home Fund's proposal to address the issue.
It proposes an increase in property tax of 36 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. This is expected to generate $48 million over seven years creating some 250 “low-cost” housing units. Using Home Fund's own figures, each unit costs some $138,000. The balance of the income would be expended on operation, support, administration, and rent assistance — about $7.2 million. It is not clear what kind of "low cost" housing is being contemplated. Nor is it clear where this housing is located.
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There is already an organization whose mission is “to provide safe, decent, and affordable housing and services to persons with disabilities, low income and at-risk individuals and families." This is the Housing Authority of Thurston County. It has some 2,500 units of housing already available for Section 8 funds. Why is there a need for another bureaucracy for Olympia or Thurston?
Why is there a lack of low-cost housing in Olympia? Research by Olympia Master Builders shows the fees to build a home in Olympia are between $35,000 and $38,000. This is before a lot is cleared or a foundation laid. The costs related to zoning and other regulations are hidden. A builder is not going to invest that amount on a low-cost home with a small profit. It would be ridiculous to assume so. Does anyone believe that any kind of home can be built in Olympia for the $100,000 left after these fees have been paid?
There are other methods of providing low cost shelter such as residential hotels and boarding houses. Where are they now? They have been regulated and taxed out of existence. The newer multiple residence units in Olympia are far out of the range of affordability for lower income individuals and families. They are filled with higher income folks and down-sizing retirees many of whom are among those distressed by the “homeless problem.”
There are almost free ways to encourage low-cost housing. The county and cities should address their fees and regulations. Alternative residential units like hotels and boarding houses would encourage entry-level, short term housing. One significant reform would be to deregulate and encourage alternative forms of transportation such as Uber and Lyft and allow jitneys. These are point to point and on-demand forms of transportation that are much more practical than buses and trains. This would expand the options for housing to a wider area and, as an added benefit, provide some jobs.
Turning to the refractory homeless, they are certainly the most visible and the source of most concern by the general public. They look and act much differently than the norm. We want them to be invisible. We want them to be more like "us." In fact, most of us are invisible. We “blend in.” We seldom draw attention to ourselves. Even when we do draw the attention of others we do so in "acceptable" ways. We want to "fix" the refractory homeless but what do they want?
The refractory homeless would not be helped by low cost housing. They already have it. We want them to fundamentally change who they are. Is this possible? Is this what they want or is it our desire? I spoke before about empathy. Perhaps we just need to learn to co-exist. Perhaps that is the path to the homeless "solution."
Ed Pole is an engineer, retired from IBM and Intel, and resides in Lacey. He is a member of the 2017 Olympian Board of Contributors. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.