Biden has big plans for homelessness — but will they help Seattle?

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Tents in park

This story was originally published by the Seattle Times on Dec 1, 2020.

By Scott Greenstone

After years of fighting with former President Donald Trump’s administration, national homelessness advocates are, for the first time in a while, feeling hopeful.

Yes, it seems there are more people out on the streets than ever, and homelessness numbers show no signs of decreasing — in fact, studies say they could get worse if nothing is done.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden extended the CDC’s eviction moratorium through March, but that will only delay what experts say could be a wave of eviction-driven homelessness — with potentially thousands in Seattle and hundreds of thousands across the country in coming years living in their cars, couch-surfing or on the streets.

The Biden administration has a plan for housing and homelessness that is extraordinarily aggressive, putting billions into rent vouchers and construction, attacking restrictive zoning and committing to making housing a human right.

“We haven’t seen an approach that’s this comprehensive since the onset of modern homelessness,” said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who has been homeless in the past and consulted with President Biden’s transition team on its plans.

But Seattle, which at last count had the third-highest homelessness count in the U.S., trailing only Los Angeles County and New York City, has a distinct set of problems: a lack of cheap housing, a messy homelessness response system and disappearing mental health facilities. The Biden plan to take a swing at the problem could miss some of these curveballs, local leaders say.

Housing for all (who qualify)

In one of the biggest changes, Biden wants to make housing assistance an entitlement, like food assistance, for the first time in the history of America. That would mean anyone who qualifies for housing assistance would get it, rather than entering a lottery as they do now in King County. This would potentially quadruple the number of people receiving benefits from programs like Section 8 across the country.

It would take a huge infusion of resources, but with Democrats running the White House and both chambers of Congress, and key allies like Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, in charge of housing and financial services committees, these goals are potentially achievable, according to Diane Yentel, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

“I think it is achievable,” Yentel said. “I don’t think we can get to fully funded vouchers that are universally available to all who need it by the end of the year or even by the end of two years, but I think we can create the infrastructure.”

But in Seattle, there are already people with federal vouchers in hand who can’t find a place in their price range that will rent to them, according to Gregg Colburn, a researcher at the University of Washington.

“We’re just leaving a huge swath of people who can’t afford housing to fend for themselves in a private market,” Colburn said. “Vouchers alone may not be sufficient to resolve the homelessness crisis because of the lack of housing options that we have.”

Colburn does support expanding voucher programs, but not without also dramatically expanding cheap housing stock.

Biden’s plan might address that concern with $640 billion proposed for rent vouchers, eviction help and affordable housing construction. It also introduces a plan to use incentives to persuade cities to do away with restrictive zoning rules that limit how much cheap housing can be built.

A “hollowed-out” housing department

To do anything about homelessness, Biden will have to rehabilitate the department that would carry out these sweeping changes — Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Advocates and researchers, as well as media reports, describe HUD as a “hollowed-out” place with many unfilled vacancies after four years under Trump’s secretary, Dr. Ben Carson. Yentel described it as a place where even the budget cuts Carson proposed didn’t get done.

Biden’s pick to replace Carson is Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge, whose background is more in food assistance and whose first pick was to be agriculture secretary.

The Biden transition team declined an interview request with Fudge for this article. Robert Marbut, President Trump’s head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, didn’t respond to an interview request.

Housing advocates have largely been supportive of Biden’s pick. Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who helped design the federal housing program for veteran families, said he was hopeful.

“Her speech that she gave accepting the nomination — the video that she made — was really promising,” Culhane said. “She seems to really appreciate how fundamental housing is.”

Drug treatment, employment minimized

While most experts agree housing costs are the main cause of Seattle’s homelessness crisis — and that housing must be secured before people can work on their mental health or substance use — the other side of that is how much money people make.

In Seattle, the lowest earners haven’t been able to afford the cheapest housing for some time; Biden has said he wants to increase the federal minimum wage to $15, but that was done years ago in Seattle, and housing remains out of reach for thousands.

Employment will be key if the federal government wants to head off ripple effects of the pandemic recession, which could put more than 600,000 people nationwide on the streets or couch-surfing by 2023, according to Daniel Flaming, president of Economic Roundtable, an L.A.-based research group.

“We don’t have good employment models,” Flaming said. “The Obama administration was mostly a trickle-down effect. Most of their jobs were going to tenured members of the labor force. It wasn’t designed to hit — most of it — the working poor.”

Biden has said he wants to expand income tax credits for low-wage workers and create a Public Health Jobs Corp of at least 100,000, but Flaming thinks he should earmark 15% to 25% of those jobs for “vulnerable workers” at risk of becoming homeless because of the pandemic recession.

Biden’s plans for responding to the drug epidemic have a smaller price tag — $125 billion to make treatment available to everyone who needs it. This is a departure from the Trump administration’s latest guidance for homelessness and housing policy, which pivoted toward drug and alcohol treatment and “tough love” crime strategies.

Biden’s substance use disorder proposals also focus mostly on opioids like heroin.

In King County, methamphetamine is arguably the bigger issue: Meth was the most common drug involved in overdose deaths in King County last year, more common than heroin or fentanyl, and there is no federally approved medical treatment for methamphetamine addiction like there is for heroin.

“Until treatment’s easier to get than the drugs, we are going to continue to go in the wrong direction with overdose deaths,” said Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, who sits on the board of Seattle’s largest shelter and mental health provider for chronic street homeless, the Downtown Emergency Service Center. “It’s a silent pandemic.”

Lauren Davis, a Democrat who represents Shoreline in the state Legislature, has been pushing for statewide drug treatment reform for years and runs the Washington Recovery Alliance. She sees a lot of good ideas in Biden’s plan — expanding the treatment workforce, tackling stigma against drug users, and passing laws requiring drug use disorder be treated similarly to other medical conditions — but wrote in an email that it’s thin on equity, the criminal legal system and recovery support.

“Biden’s proposal misses several critically important components of recovery support services that are highly correlated with long-term recovery, namely recovery housing (home) and employment and education pathways (purpose),” Davis said.

Scholes and Davis are glad to see a plan, though.

“Getting the feds back in the game will be a good thing,” Scholes said.