In this podcast, reporter Ray Dubicki and I dive into the Harrell administration’s new homelessness data tracker. We assess how well it is fulfilling its purported role of increasing communication and transparency around this pressing and difficult issue with the, and we discuss some of the context around its creation and whether it is really is the beginning of Seattle’s first real strategic plan for addressing homelessness. Give it a listen.
Homelessness has proven to be a tragic and seemingly intractable problem in Seattle in recent years. The issue was front and center during the most recent mayoral and city council elections, in which candidates, including now Mayor Bruce Harrell, pledged to take action to remove encampments and bring more people into shelter. This week Seattle is now seeing the first tangible new contribution from the Harrell administration aimed at confronting homelessness: a data dashboard that Harrell promises is the beginning of Seattle’s “first strategy” to reduce the number of people living unsheltered, in tents, or in vehicles, on the city’s streets.
At a press conference to unveil the homelessness data dashboard held on the steps of Dockside, a future site of housing for people exiting homelessness and lower-income workers in Green Lake, Harrell described the incredulity he felt after departing a 12 year tenure on the City Council to “watch from the sidelines for two years” as the City failed to take action to address homelessness. “I asked, what is the plan? What is the strategic approach? It was clear a database approach was needed,” Harrell said.
“When I came into office in 2022, there was no strategic plan,” Harrell reaffirmed in his remarks, which also referenced how his prior career in the private sector as a lawyer had influenced his determination that increased data-tracking, measurement, and also transparency, would be needed to make gains in the homelessness crisis.
Harrell is not the first to call for increased measurement and accountability around how well efforts in addressing homelessness are performing. In tech-savvy Seattle, data is often presented as the key for unlocking the doors to progress. But we also all know that data has its limitations; it can be misrepresented or even manipulated to support pre-fit narratives. And when it comes to assessing an issue as complex as homelessness, data may paint an incomplete picture, failing to capture certain realities that lay at the core of the problem.
There is also the question of money. How much change can the Seattle public expect from a system that tracks and measures certain data points related to homelessness, but at least at this point, is not connected to bringing new funding or resources to the table? Mayor Harrell data dashboard rollout was not paired with additional funding commitments to build more supportive housing, whether public or the philanthropic help Harrell emphasized while campaigning for office. In fact, the dashboard is tallying projects that were already underway when Harrell took office, and his contribution, which the Mayor and Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Dan Strauss did play up at the press conference, was simply to expedite them to the extent possible.
Additionally, it is potentially troubling that already some of the language in the dashboard and Harrell pledges is a bit murky. On the campaign trail, Harrell pledged to create 1,000 new units of emergency and affordable housing during his first six months in office and another 1,000 during by the end of his first year. While 2,000 new units of housing for homeless people in one year is an ambitious number, it is not wholly unattainable as evidenced by recent gains in affordable housing production Seattle, buoyed by a boost in funding from Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program entering the pipeline. While Harrell has referenced utilizing federal dollars from programs like Build Back Better, he has not identified another ongoing, sustainable source of revenue to fund these housing investments.
What he has identified, however, are units of permanent supportive housing and emergency shelter, and here is where the crux of the issue may currently lay. While on the campaign trail Harrell spoke of creating housing, now he has backtracked to “identifying” this housing. The distinction is important. The Mayor said 1,300 emergency and affordable homes have been identified so far this year. Of these, only 553 are open and operational currently, and 506 homes are under construction and 241 homes are in planning stages.
The Harrell administration says it expects to have all 1,300 ready for occupancy by the end of the year, but even if that is achieved, it would still fall short of the full campaign promise of 2,000 units. Furthermore “identifying” the remaining 700 units of housing may prove difficult since many of the projects included in the 1,300 tally have been in the works for years. The Dockside building, which is in the process of being acquired by LIHI using $18.9 million in funding from Seattle’s Office of Housing, is planned to be open for use by July 1st, but some other included in the tally aren’t scheduled to open until the fall.
The dashboard’s primary job may ultimately be in reassuring the public in the Mayor’s approach. The Harrell administration has insisted it’s doing its encampment removals (also known as sweeps) in a compassionate, ethical, and equitable way. However, the dashboard suggests over the past five months, the reported tent removals are heavily weighted toward the Downtown core and North Seattle while South Seattle has recorded almost none. Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said removals won’t solely be determined by neighbors stacking complaints, but she also encouraged residents to report encampments that reform following sweeps via the City’s Find It Fix It app and pledged the City would respond within 48 hours.
Ultimately, the stark reality is that even creating (not just identifying) the full 2,000 units of housing pledged will most likely not reduce visible homelessness to the degree some Seattleites are calling for. It may, however, ease the public’s conscious around encampment sweeps in highly visible areas like public parks, and for the time being, that may be viewed as enough for constituents who have expressed anger, frustration, and disappointment around the issue.
Want to share your thoughts on Seattle’s new homelessness data dashboard or related issues? Reach out to us at podcast [at] theurbanist.org. As always, you can find The Urbanist podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and other major platforms.
Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is a reporter and podcast host at The Urbanist. She previously served as managing editor. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.