Zillow data: Seattle has 3rd largest homeless population in U.S., as rising rents take a toll

A Ballard homeless camp. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

Rents are at all-time highs in tech hubs like Seattle, and new data from Zillow show how rent hikes in various cities around the nation impact the homeless population.

Seattle is one of several cities where Zillow ties rent increases to a rising homeless population. Zillow found that a 5 percent rent increase in Seattle would push an additional 258 people into homelessness. That figure is the third highest among the cities measured by Zillow, behind only New York City and Los Angeles, the two most populous cities in the nation. Seattle’s population is not nearly as vulnerable to New York and L.A., where a 5 percent rent bump could lead to homeless population increases of 2,982 and 1,993 people, respectively.

Zillow senior economist Dr. Skylar Olsen. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

The report also compares homeless counts in various cities and attempts to predict the size of full homeless populations, as counts often tend to miss people. By this metric, Seattle’s homeless population is also the third highest, behind New York and Los Angeles.

Zillow estimates Seattle’s homeless population totals 12,763 people, well behind New York (76,341) and Los Angeles (61,398). The only other city with a homeless population over 10,000 people, according to Zillow estimates, is San Diego.

”We’ve seen so much pressure in rental housing markets that it’s created a rental affordability crisis that has spilled over into a homelessness crisis at lower income levels,” said Zillow senior economist Dr. Skylar Olsen. “Often, the rental demand in these markets isn’t being met with a sufficient supply. There are several cities grappling with this problem, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. This report puts a number on the link between rising rents and homelessness, highlighting the very real human impact that rent increases are having across the country.”

Zillow found that San Francisco, a place that many in Seattle use as a cautionary tale of how not to handle a tech boom due to its astronomical rents, has a lower homeless population and a 5 percent rent bump wouldn’t put nearly as many people on the street.

Homelessness rates in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Seattle increased by at least four percent between 2011 and 2016, Zillow found, and these cities have a strong relationship between rising rents and growing homeless populations.

The study found, however, that rising rents don’t always correlate to increased homeless populations. Cities like Houston and Tampa, for example, have seen rent increases like many other areas, but their homeless populations have declined in recent years.

Amazon is building a shelter for homeless services organization Mary’s Place at one of its office blocks. (Graphite Design Group Rendering)

The city of Seattle alone is spending close to $50 million a year helping people experiencing homelessness. Tech luminaries are also stepping up to try and mitigate the crisis.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s foundation, Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos, as well as a campaign supported by Starbucks, Microsoft and others have contributed millions of dollars in donations and building space for homeless shelters, affordable housing and other services to help those eager for a permanent home.

Last June, Allen announced a $1 million donation to help turn a southeast Seattle parking lot into 13 housing units for homeless individuals and couples. And in April, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation pledged $30 million to establish a combination of permanent housing and on-site services for homeless families, with an additional $5 million in support from the city.

Amazon, meanwhile, has focused its housing support on shelter beds. In 2016, the retail and cloud services giant converted a former motel slated for demolition into a temporary shelter for Mary’s Place, a nonprofit serving homeless families. Bezos also offered to match up to $1 million in contributions to Mary’s Place during the city’s annual Give Big donation day.

Amazon announced in May that it’s building a permanent shelter for families among the buildings of its corporate campus. The 47,000 square-foot shelter, also to be run by Mary’s Place, is expected to open in early 2020 and house more than 200 people nightly.

While support for shelters and services from the tech community can play a role in helping people find homes, they’re not a lasting solution, Rachel Fyall, a University of Washington assistant professor in the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, told GeekWire in June.

“People are excited about doing something about homelessness, but not willing to make the housing-market changes,” Fyall said. That includes building higher density housing and smaller homes that cost less. “Without improving the affordability of housing more generally, it’s going to be hard to have an impact,” Fyall said.