UW News

March 15, 2022

UW professor’s new book presents opportunity to ‘rethink housing’

UW News

Seattle buildings at sunset

Seattle is among the “big eight” U.S. cities that struggle with homelessness, says Gregg Colburn, assistant professor of real estate at the UW, in his new book.Pamela Dore/U. of Washington


Not all U.S. major cities are grappling with homelessness at the scale of say, Seattle or San Francisco.

And it’s not because some cities have more people in poverty, or more people in crisis.

Gregg Colburn, assistant professor of real estate at the University of Washington, believes housing market conditions — specifically, high housing and rental prices, and low vacancy rates — exacerbate economic and personal challenges for society’s most vulnerable. And it’s the housing market, aided by the private and public sectors, that can provide the solution.

Colburn’s new book, Homelessness is a Housing Problem, co-authored with data journalist Clayton Aldern, explores the factors that drive homelessness, and the cultural and economic shift that can ultimately benefit all — housed and unhoused.

“We know that there are individual factors that increase the risk of homelessness for individuals, maybe poverty or health issues or substance use. But those factors alone don’t explain the huge problem we have in Seattle, or San Francisco or Los Angeles,” Colburn said. “If we continue to blame individuals for particular outcomes, we’re going to miss the fundamental driver of this crisis — housing market dynamics. We have a gross undersupply of housing at all levels, but certainly of affordable housing. Failure to address that gap will, I think, guarantee that we will continue to struggle with this crisis in perpetuity.”

In 2020, Colburn co-led a study with King County on the use of hotels as temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. He spoke with UW News about his new book, published March 15 by University of California Press.

What did you learn about the differences among cities?

There are the “big eight” cities for homelessness in the United States: Boston; New York; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Portland; San Francisco; Los Angeles; and San Diego. Each of these cities have really high rents and low vacancies. While there are people with vulnerabilities in every community around the country, the consequences of vulnerabilities are far more severe in a place where housing costs are very expensive and vacancies are low.

For example, the margin for error in Seattle is very thin: If you get kicked out of your apartment, or get into a fight with your roommate, or lose your job, there are no places to move to, and if there are it might cost $2,000 a month. Now, the margin for error in Detroit — one of the most impoverished cities in the country — is far greater. You can lose a job, you can have an unfortunate event, but you might be able to find an apartment for $500, where vacancy rates are 10%.We have fewer poor people in Seattle than Detroit does on a per capita basis, but we have far more homelessness because the consequences of being poor in Seattle are so much more significant.

How is the “system” of homelessness, as you define it in the book inflow, crisis response and outflow strained in Seattle?

One of the key challenges that our political leaders currently face is where do we invest, given that we have a crisis raging right in front of us. We can and should invest in our crisis response — expanding shelter capacity and providing more services to people who need them. But those steps will not end homelessness. We also need to make permanent investments that will provide housing units. But the more acute the crisis gets, the greater the pressure is to deal with the short term, which is what is happening with our mayor and City Council right now. I understand that, but as we devote resources to these emergencies, I really hope that we don’t take our eye off the longer-term ball, which is investments in housing.

Gregg Colburn

New York City serves as a warning: It has invested billions in a massive shelter system that houses tens of thousands of people, but then there’s nowhere for them to go. People can live their lives in the shelter system. In Seattle, we can make short-term investments and expand the shelter system, but without permanent housing units on the other side, we will just end up with a much larger shelter system. And that is not an outcome that I wish for the people experiencing homelessness or for our community. Those are very expensive systems to maintain, and you’re not ending homelessness — you’re re-characterizing it from unsheltered to sheltered. We need to have both short- and long-term responses if we’re going to make a dent in this crisis.

How did the hotel study inform your research for the book?

The hotel intervention occurred while we were writing the book, and it certainly clarified a couple of things. One is that the current emergency response system is essential but flawed — not because of a lack of imagination or good work by the people providing those services; they will acknowledge that our current congregate shelter settings do not help people get out of crisis. Congregate shelters, in an effort to serve as many people as possible, put hundreds of people together sleeping on mats, or in bunk beds, in very close proximity. It’s not an ideal situation to help people stabilize. What we observed through the transition to hotel rooms during the pandemic is that when people got out of these congregate settings, they improved from a physical and an emotional standpoint, evidence that provided support for the county to make some significant investments in the purchase of hotels for housing units. I have become a big advocate for those conversions because we need a lot more housing units, and it’s a lot easier to buy them rather than to spend two years building them. If we can get 300 units at a time through the acquisition of a motel, it can improve the emergency response, and eventually many of those units could be converted into permanent supportive housing.

You point to the private and public sectors to help provide solutions, as well as a needed cultural shift in how society views housing. How do we start?

Changing the perception around housing is essential. We think of transportation as a public good, but housing as a private good. We make massive investments in transportation, because we know it’s going to be good for people, the climate, the economy, traffic. But we get very reluctant when we start to talk about public investments in housing. Our region desperately needs more housing that is affordable and that commitment will require public funds, either from federal, state or local government — or preferably, all of the above. I think people are now starting to connect the dots, that the lack of housing is really kind of a clear and present danger for the viability of our community. We’re seeing Amazon and Microsoft stepping up and investing in housing because they recognize that if there are people in this community who can’t afford to live here, including their own service workers, then that is a threat to their businesses. In this crisis moment, there is an opportunity to rethink the way we think about housing—in terms of who funds it and our use of land. I think the growing recognition of this crisis will drive needed change, but it will be slow and difficult, just as a lot of political change is.

The fact that the government may and should be involved, either through supporting the construction of housing or providing people with purchasing power through vouchers or other subsidies, is encouraging. Then, we can hopefully get over the stigma associated with affordable housing and acknowledge that a healthy society involves housing that people can afford.

For more information, contact Colburn at colburn3@uw.edu.