We often get the question ‘Why?’ when it comes to homelessness. ‘Why is it so bad?’, ‘How do people become homeless in the first place?’, ‘Why are there so many more tents? Skyrocketing housing costs, a growing heroin and opioid epidemic, extreme gaps in our mental health system, unexpected job loss. Each of these can send someone spiraling into homelessness. Today we tackle rising cost of housing.
Why are people homeless?
Cost of housing plays a big role.
Each week, the Seattle area gains roughly 1,100 new residents, according to the US Census Bureau. We’re the ninth fastest-growing metro in the nation.
With that kind of growth, the reasons for moving here are as varied as the people themselves. Some move here for jobs, some for university, to be with family, etc. But the one thing they find in common is: it’s expensive to live here.
The median price for a house in Seattle in April of this year was $625,000 – that’s more than double the median price five years ago. Area rents went up 8.3% last year to $1,617 – and in South King County, they went up 15%.
True, there are more apartments on the way – Seattle expects nearly 9,000 new units this year. But rents for these new units are typically 40% more expensive than existing units – and most of the inventory will be in Belltown and South Lake Union where rents are already high.
Most of the South King County markets with the highest increases – Burien, Des Moines, Kent, Federal Way – didn’t have a single new apartment last year.
A housing voucher ≠ housing
Federal housing vouchers are designed to help low-income renters afford—with a subsidy—40% of the apartments on the market. However, in King County, only 12.5% of 2-bedroom rentals are below HUD’s Fair Market Rent.
Earlier this year, 3,500 people received Section 8 housing vouchers – and the wait list is currently closed. If you were fortunate to score one of those vouchers, there is little to celebrate. There are nearly zero units available that a voucher will cover. Housing vouchers typically expire after 12 months and it’s not unusual for someone who has a voucher in hand to not find housing during that time. When a voucher expires, you go to the back of the wait-list line and lottery process.
Game Changer: United Way’s Flexible Funds
At United Way, we meet people every week who have experienced just one set back – an unexpected medical bill, an unforeseen layoff for a long-time cab driver, a must-needed car with a dropped transmission – that caused them to slip into homelessness. Nationwide, 57% of Americans don’t have enough cash to cover a $500 unexpected expense – and with Seattle area housing costs, that poses severe risks.
Last year we introduced through our Streets to Home program. Flexible funds help people overcome these barriers to get them back into a safe place – instead of entering the shelter system. Whether the funds help people eliminate an eviction from their record or connect them with a family member, these flexible dollars have been a game changer. Nearly 600 people were moved off the streets last year – and with an increased investment this year, we’ll help even more people. The average cost of helping someone is $770 – a good return on investment, no matter how you look at it.