‘They’re getting it done’: What SF can learn from Seattle on housing, homelessness

Photo of Heather Knight

Heather Knight  Aug. 16, 2019 (SFChronicle.com)

1of4Kenyatta Webb walks through the True Hope Village on East Yesler Way where he has lived with his 14-year-old son, Milchia, for the past two months, Oct. 28, 2018. (Genna Martin, seattlepi.com)Photo: Genna Martin / SeattlePI.com 2018
2of4Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announces the city is in negotiations to sell several parcels of land for development that would include 175 units of affordable housing in a community near Amazon’s headquarters.Photo: Greg Gilbert / Seattle Times
3of4Seattle has had much more success than San Francisco in moving homeless people off the streets into tiny homes and other temporary accommodations.Photo: Elaine Thompson / Associated Press 2017

When it comes to American cities, San Francisco and Seattle are remarkably similar. They’re both known for their stunningly beautiful waterfront locations, their liberal politics and the tech booms that have jolted them from quirky little “left coast” tourist destinations into global economic powerhouses.

The might-as-well-be-twin cities also share some less attractive qualities: high costs of living, stark income inequality and big, in-your-face homeless populations.

But the new homeless count reports for both cities show Seattle is making a little progress — and San Francisco certainly isn’t.

The January tallies showed San Francisco’s count soared 17% in two years alone, whereas King County, which includes Seattle, saw an 8% dip.

The portion of San Francisco’s homeless population that is unsheltered — those living on the streets, in parks or in cars — jumped, whereas Seattle’s dropped. In San Francisco, that figure rose from 4,353 in 2017 to 5,180 this year. In Seattle alone — not including the rest of King County — the number dropped from 3,841 in 2017 to 3,558 this year.

Nobody visiting Seattle would argue that city lacks a homeless problem — and the scenes in some neighborhoods are dire. But at least its numbers are moving in the right direction — slowly. Ours are moving the wrong way — fast.

Mayor London Breed told me a few weeks ago she’d been talking to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan for guidance — especially when it comes to building housing and homeless shelters.

“They’ve been doing a great job of aggressively getting more housing built in their city, and that’s what we have to do,” Breed said. “They’ve increased the number of shelter beds. They’re getting it done.”SUBSCRIBER BENEFITDid you know that subscribers get full access to our native app?

Breed was clearly irked not only by City Hall’s notoriously slow process for approving housing, but also by the so-called liberal San Franciscans who support helping the homeless as long as it’s not anywhere near their comfortable homes.

“They don’t have people suing them when someone decides to build a shelter in their neighborhood,” Breed said of Seattle, clearly contrasting it with the lawsuit Embarcadero neighbors filed against San Francisco to stop the building of a Navigation Center there.

I called Seattle’s mayor to learn more about the city’s success in getting people off the streets. She said the biggest help has been working on housing and homelessness as part of a region rather than as a stand-alone city.

“We’re looking at it more holistically,” Durkan said.

The Puget Sound Regional Council includes more than 80 entities such as counties, cities, ports, transportation agencies and even tribal governments all crafting joint decisions about how to accommodate the 1 million additional people expected to live in the area by 2040.

That regional approach has been advocated in the Bay Area, but we’ve seen little progress in improving collaboration. The Bay Area Council, a civic group that has long pushed for more regional planning, looks enviously to the Puget Sound Regional Council because it has “the ability to do things at scale that we can’t do here,” said Matt Regan, senior vice president of public policy. In the Bay Area, the nine counties and 101 cities and towns don’t coordinate on much of anything — housing and homelessness included.

“We all think it’s someone else’s responsibility to build housing,” Regan said. “We all think it’s someone else’s responsibility to solve the homeless problem. We all think it’s someone else’s responsibility to do transit. And we get what we’ve got.”

Which is a region plagued by spiking homelessness, transportation dysfunction and a housing crisis.

Washington state law requires all fast-growing cities and counties in the state to craft plans to accommodate the population growth — ranging from reducing sprawl to building affordable housing to preserving historical buildings and parks. Gov. Gavin Newsom should lead the charge on demanding all California cities address our housing shortage and homelessness crisis. (At least a new California law ends appeals for new Navigation Centers, so there’s that.)

Even with 20% fewer residents than San Francisco, Seattle produces far more housing — and as a result, their residents pay half as much rent as we do.

Seattle has opened a record number of new apartments in the past year, and rents have flatlined or even dropped in some neighborhoods. In 2018, Seattle’s metro area built 17,450 apartments, according to the Seattle Times.An additional 45,000 are in the pipeline.

San Francisco added just 2,579 housing units last year, the smallest gain since 2013. The city expects to add 4,700 new units this year. The slowness is largely because of our city’s glacial process for approving housing — combined with skyrocketing construction costs and the city’s impact fees, or taxes to offset public impacts of development, that total more than $165,000 per unit.

All housing in San Francisco is subject to discretionary review, meaning the process for approving it is long and exasperating — even if it meets zoning and other requirements. And any neighbor can stymie a project along the way.

That process doesn’t exist in Seattle, where projects that meet all rules and regulations can get built more quickly.

Benjamin Grant, urban design policy director for SPUR, said Seattle officials have referred to the “San Francisco death spiral” when it comes to our city’s horrible process for approving housing — or, more likely, preventing it.

“We are used as a cautionary tale by them,” Grant said.

Seattle is also opening more permanent supportive housing for homeless people, as well as homeless shelters and other short-term accommodations.

It has eight “tiny home” villages featuring 328 tiny homes, which have locked doors and are big enough for a bed, microwave, toilet and sink. Oakland and San Jose have also started operating tiny home villages. In Seattle, each village houses up to 70 people, costs up to $500,000 to construct and takes just six months to build.

San Francisco officials have dismissed the villages because they’re not long-term solutions and because unions object when their workers don’t build them. Considering the crisis on our sidewalks, neither argument against the villages passes muster.

Seattle has also turned some of its old-school shelters into “enhanced shelters” — adding the good characteristics of Navigation Centers like allowing people to bring their partners, pets and belongings and having more support staff on-site without having to build them from the ground up. People can stay in them as long as they need to rather than being kicked out after an arbitrary time window like at some San Francisco shelters.

“When I came in, the majority of our shelter was just emergency shelter — mats on the floor, short-term stays, very little services provided,” Durkan said. “We have flipped that. … (Enhanced shelters) are much more effective at moving people into long-term housing, and it’s more humane.”

I’ve been advocating for turning traditional shelters in San Francisco into quasi-Navigation Centers for years, but like so many ideas in San Francisco, it hasn’t progressed much. City officials have long said they support the idea in theory but want to spend their money on expanding the number of beds in the shelter system and building more permanent supportive housing.

Breed hopes the November ballot can begin to change San Francisco’s dire housing picture and make the city a little more like Seattle. Voters will take up a $600 million housing bond and a separate measure to open big tracts of public land for 100% affordable and teacher housing. She’s also chipping away at her goal of opening 1,000 new shelter beds by the end of 2020.

“We have to get more aggressive with housing production, we have to provide more shelter beds, and we have to have more places for people to go if we’re going to put a dent in the biggest challenge facing our city,” she said.

At least she’s got somewhere to look for a little help.

Email: hknight@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @hknightsf Instagram: @heatherknightsf

Photo of Heather Knight
Heather Knight

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Heather Knight is a columnist working out of City Hall and covering everything from politics to homelessness to family flight and the quirks of living in one of the most fascinating cities in the world. She believes in holding politicians accountable for their decisions or, often, lack thereof – and telling the stories of real people and their struggles.

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