A Badly Needed Conversation About Homeless Spending

In considering a homeless tax levy, Seattle must avoid the typical pro-tax/anti-tax battle lines.

Anyone who’s listened closely to Mayor Ed Murray over the past year shouldn’t be surprised by his announcement last week, during his State of the City address, that he would seek to place on a special August ballot a new property-tax levy to raise money for homeless services. He’s broached the subject of a special homelessness levy several times, including during a press conference last September near the I-5 off ramp where a homeless man was struck and killed by a motorist as he slept in his tent. As that death showed—as did the scores of deaths before and after it; as did the recent news of an underage sex ring in one of the city’s encampments; as do the everyday scenes of human suffering on our streets—the scale of Seattle’s homeless crisis, and the ancillary public-health and safety issues that come with it, is an entire order of magnitude greater than the considerable resources the city has thus far devoted to it.

There will be plenty of time between now and August to decide on the merits of the Mayor’s proposal—after its details are released by a task force comprising City Council members and local civic leaders. What we must not do is automatically fall into pro-tax and anti-tax camps. Alas, this is most likely where we are headed. Opponents, exhausted by the region’s recent spate of levies, will rail against this one without even exploring what the city plans to do with the money. Likewise, well-meaning liberals will line up to cast a vote for civic health and humanity without even questioning whether the city’s plan will work. Neither position is acceptable in this moment of sustained crisis. The problem of homelessness is too severe to continue on our current path; it is also too nuanced to just throw more money at. The mayor’s levy is providing an opportunity to have a truly meaningful conversation about how we spend on homelessness, and, perhaps more important, how we tax ourselves to create a more equitable and healthy society.

Seattle spent more than $50 million on various policies related to homelessness last year. This figure includes efforts to shelter and clothe the estimated 3,000 homeless people in Seattle, but also efforts to evict unauthorized encampments and dispose of what the city might call detritus but homeless advocates call personal belongings. Whatever your feelings on these policies, everyone should recognize a fundamental disconnect: Eight figures later, we still have thousands unsheltered and innumerable unauthorized encampments. While those who have benefited from the services might disagree, to the average taxpayer, it can seem that all we’ve gotten for our $50 million—about $16,000 per homeless person in Seattle—is a lawsuit from the ACLU.

The mayor himself has acknowledged this disconnect. “We cannot spend money and expect success without having a strategic plan informed by national experts with accountability measures to make sure what we are funding is working,” he said during his speech last week. “We have that plan now.”

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about City Hall’s new gambit, called Pathways Home, which focuses on individualized plans to get homeless people into shelter. For one, it recognizes the simple truth, noted many times in these pages, that the large, dormitory-style overnight shelters we rely on to get people off the streets are incompatible with many homeless people’s lifestyles—in other words, they don’t actually get a lot people off the streets. However, it’s undeniable that what the mayor is asking Seattle to do is double down on homeless spending at the same time it rolls out an entirely new way of spending money on the homeless. That’s not grounds for disregarding the levy, but it does call for a healthy dose of scrutiny.

It’s also true that the levy could be the seventh new tax put in place during Mayor Ed Murray’s first term. The number seven should not, by itself, be made much of. Several of these taxes are tiny (the democracy voucher program, approved by voters, costs the average homeowner $11.50 a year) or symbolic (the new gun tax applies only to the very few places in Seattle you can even buy a gun). Still, there have been some big asks, among them the $900 million Move Seattle transportation levy and the $290 million housing levy. If homeowners are feeling besieged, it’s not without cause.

But this is arguably not an issue with government spending—which, it should be said, voters continue to support at the ballot box—but with our tax system. State law has boxed officials in—first by prohibiting an income tax, which would allow our city to more progressively tax economic winners to help the less fortunate, and second by barring general property taxes from going up more than 1 percent a year, making government services constantly play catchup with inflation and population growth and necessitating specialized levies like the transportation, housing, and now homelessness measures.

There are efforts to fix these problems: A bill now before the legislature would eliminate the 1 percent cap to allow cities and counties to craft budgets more realistically, and a Seattle coalition is leading an effort to create an income tax. The latter, were it to pass, would almost certainly invite a constitutional challenge, since the state charter has long been interpreted to ban taxes on income. But as with Seattle’s spending on homelessness, it’s a conversation we need to have.