...but since we did...
By Alex Broner, Founder and Director of Housing Now
It was 2015 and everything was topsy turvy. I was back in Seattle, over-educated, and under-employed. My masters degree in urban planning was tucked in my suitcase. I was moving from couch to couch, relying upon the goodwill of friends and family. One job interview after another fell flat. Looking outside at those sleeping on the streets, I knew I was lucky, but it didn’t feel that way.
It’s easy to give advice to any one person in poverty on how to improve their condition: go to school, learn a trade, save your money, apply to jobs, network...etc. Yet when millions of people are going through the same thing, at the same time, and have been for years, individual advice falls short.
One thing I don’t advise, if you find yourself in a similar situation, is trying to start a Housing organization. That’s what I did.
I was coming back from Safeway after a long shift. I was still sleeping on couches, still trying to put my life together, but I said “fuck it”. Housing in Seattle was a mess. If I wasn’t very good at fixing my own situation, at least I could work on the problem for everyone else. Again, not what I would advise anyone to do, but that’s what I did.
I started meeting with people. Housing activists, architects, developers. People who knew about housing and could tell me what I did not know. I also met other people in similar situations. People with advanced degrees and low incomes. Letting people have their dignity meant they only revealed what they felt like revealing, but I’m pretty sure at least one of our super volunteers was sleeping on couches also.
In 2015 we tried to get the city to commit money to study the details of how to expand publicly financed housing. We were trying to get others paid for the work we were educated to do. It's clear that if we are to expand publicly financed housing in Seattle we must have increased funding, improved zoning, and changes to how we build. This study would have looked into the details of how to do that. Our council resolution failed in a tied 4-4 vote, with one absence.
The next year we tried something different: We joined with a bunch of other groups in what became known as the Build 1000 homes coalition. We succeeded in getting $29 million for affordable housing. Depending on the size of the units and other factors this would be homes for about 300 people. Every little bit helps, but we have a lot more work to do. We launched a petition laying out the case for how we can build 10,000 affordable homes.
My own personal situation has been looking up, as it has that of our volunteers. I’d like to think that Housing Now played a role in that, giving us something to work on that filled gaps in our resumes, helped us practice our skills, and gave us hope and dignity. All of us had friends who supported us, who gave us material and psychological support. Looking out at the streets and doorways and it’s clear that others are not so lucky.
Housing Now is two years old and yet the housing crisis we were founded to resolve continues. The fact that most of our volunteers found stable full time employment is great for each of us, but not so good for the organization and our work. It’s hard to juggle a full time job, a personal life, and also solve the city’s housing problems. That’s why we’re redoubling our efforts to recruit more volunteers and raise funds.
Want to learn more? We’re having a House Party* on Friday, June 23rd. Be sure to rsvp on facebook if you can and also on eventbrite so we can send you the address. We’ve got some great guest speakers including multifamily builder David Neiman and Seattle District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant. If you can’t make the event, check out our take action page to find out other ways you can get involved. Housing Now is powered by grass-roots enthusiasm from people like you!
*This is event is a joint event with Seattle #YIOBY - Yes In Our Backyards- to support those who says "yes to more housing!" of all our neighborhoods. Funds will be evenly divided between the two organizations.