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Poor economy leaves more people in Seattle struggling to find housing

Ashley Gross
Diane Rivers has been homeless off and on since she was pregnant with her now three-year-old daughter, Christina

Seattle’s oldest public housing project, Yesler Terrace, is headed for a massive redevelopment, and that means years of upheaval for its 1,200 residents. At least they’re guaranteed some kind of housing. Others are not so lucky. The poor economy has made a chronic shortage of subsidized housing in Seattle even worse.

Diane Rivers is one of the people who's been trying for years to find a permanent home that she can afford.

For her, a day center called Mary's Place is a kind of respite, where she and her children can get free meals and relax with other women struggling with homelessness. Mary's Place also offers job assistance and help finding housing. In a basement room filled with toys, Rivers' bouncy three-year-old daughter Christina works on puzzles on the floor. Her six-year-old son Elijah and 14-year-old daughter Jasmine hang out with friends nearby.

Rivers and her kids have been homeless off and on for three years. Nights when they couldn’t find a shelter, she stayed in diners nursing one cup of coffee till it got light outside. She says the worst was one long, scary night at the Greyhound bus station.

"There’s all types of people who come through there, and I had to basically stay up all night to make sure nothing happened to my kids," Rivers said.

Rivers is a quiet woman, heavyset. She’s trying to keep things as normal as possible for her kids, making sure they go to school. Her struggles weigh her down. It’s her kids’ pain that hurts the most and she looks down with tears in her eyes as she describes what it’s like for them to be homeless.

"My son, he’s the one that has the hardest time," Rivers said. "He’s in elementary school and the kids tease him a lot. It gets to the point where he doesn’t want to go to school because there’s kids at school that make fun of him because he’s homeless and they think he’s a dirty little bum."

Rivers became homeless after she fled an abusive relationship in Texas back to Seattle where she had grown up. Her mom died in 2009 and she had no safety net.

"Right now it’s just like me and my three kids, we have nobody else to rely on," she said. "No family, nobody."

Things seemed to be looking up when she landed a spot in transitional housing three years ago, but that kind of bridge accommodation has a set time limit and earlier this year her time there ran out.  She doesn’t have a job, and her welfare benefits have run out. Now they’re staying in shelters that Mary’s Place runs. Rivers says she’s been trying for years to get permanent low-income housing and has applied all over the place.

"Every single waiting list there is," Rivers said. "Even to low-income apartments – I’m even on those waitlists and those waitlists are very long because people are not moving out of their place because they want to make sure they have a stable place for their families."

That’s true. Andrew Lofton is executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority. He says since the recession, there’s more demand for subsidized housing and fewer people are moving out.

"We usually have a graduation rate, if you will, of individuals who ultimately earn enough income to move out of subsidized housing. We’re seeing fewer of those individuals, so our turnover rate is much lower, people are staying longer in our housing and the waitlists are extensive," Lofton said.

The turnover rate for rental vouchers has slowed to half what it was before the recession hit. Seattle Housing Authority has a number of different waitlists, but Lofton gives one dramatic example of how much longer the wait has gotten for Jefferson Terrace, a building near downtown.  

"Back in 2008, 2007, the waitlist there to get into Jefferson Terrace was less than a year. Today it’s almost six years," Lofton said.

Even as demand grows, federal funding for housing assistance is at risk. It could get slashed if Congress doesn’t reach a compromise by the end of the year to avert automatic tax increases and spending cuts.

Rachel Garshick Kleit, a professor who's studied Seattle's public housing developments, says the fact that so many people are struggling to find housing should give all of us pause.

"You’d say in Yiddish, it’s a schande," Kleit said. "It’s a shame. A societal shame."

Kleit says the U.S. government just doesn’t prioritize affordable housing. Seattle has done a lot more than the rest of the country. Voters here have repeatedly approved higher taxes to pay for affordable housing, and the state also funds low-income programs. All of that – it’s still not enough.

"We still have problems. It’s a very expensive metropolitan area and we have a shortage of housing for people at the bottom," Kleit said.

At Mary’s Place, women take turns holding babies. Diane Rivers’ son huddles over a phone with some other kids, playing games. Rivers is trying to stay hopeful. She used to work in nursing in Texas and her goal is to get back to work.

"Once I get my youngest one in day care and get the kids’ school schedules down then I’ll be able to return to work or go back to school," Rivers said.

In the meantime, she waits for her name to rise to the top of one of the housing lists. Until then, every week she has to pack up her stuff and her kids’ stuff and move to a different shelter. She has to tell her daughters and son she can’t save the artwork they’ve made for her. She doesn’t have walls to put it on.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.