Statement from the ACLU of Washington on proposed Seattle Charter Amendment 29

News Release: 
Tuesday, June 8, 2021
On May 27, a political committee calling itself Compassion Seattle began gathering signatures to qualify a local ballot initiative to amend the Charter of the City of Seattle — the foundational document of the City that embodies its fundamental principles, defines its powers and duties, and guarantees certain rights to the people. Charter Amendment 29 (CA-29) would enshrine Seattle’s current ineffective and harmful practice of sweeping unhoused residents and their homes from public places into the City’s Charter, while doing nothing to meaningfully address homelessness. The criminalization of poverty is not only unconstitutional, but an inappropriate way to address the long-standing and intersecting issues of housing affordability, Seattle’s racial wealth divide and community displacement, and the history of structural inequity in housing.

The ACLU of Washington shares the concern of many Seattle residents that the housing crisis is an emergency that affects all of us and that the City must do everything in its power to redress our neighbors’ suffering. To that end, we support solutions that address the root causes of homelessness and do not punish people for trying to meet their basic life-sustaining needs like shelter, sleep and food. Wages have not kept pace with housing costs, forcing many of our neighbors out of housing they can no longer afford. Destroying unhoused peoples’ homes and shuffling them all over Seattle has only exacerbated the region’s housing crisis and pushed more of our neighbors onto City streets.  It has no place in our City Charter.

For these reasons, we oppose CA-29. Meaningful solutions to the housing crisis should reflect the following considerations, which are absent from CA-29:
  • Seattle’s lack of adequate, affordable permanent housing is the primary driver of homelessness.
 Numerous studies have established that the long-term solution to homelessness is permanent, affordable housing — not stopgap measures aimed at reducing the visibility of poverty, like clearing city streets and building temporary shelters. Yet, CA-29 provides no dedicated funding for permanent housing.  In the long run, those temporary measures are far more expensive and less effective than generating sufficient accessible and affordable permanent housing. Policing the poor does not create healthier or safer communities: stable and adequate housing does.
  • The housing crisis is systemic and rooted in a history of racial injustice.
The causes of Seattle’s housing crisis are not new, nor are they poorly understood. The current housing crisis has long roots in racial injustice. For generations, redlining, racial covenants, discrimination in the housing market and employment, and zoning restrictions have segregated and displaced people of color and the poor. Years of not adequately and inclusively addressing the housing crisis in partnership with directly impacted communities have compounded its effects on all of us. Any effective long-term solution must address the history and systemic nature of the housing crisis and center those experiencing homelessness in the formulation of policy.
  • Punishing people for being poor exacerbates the housing crisis and is unconstitutional.
Any solution to these systemic failures cannot involve, let alone prioritize, punishing victims of the resulting crisis. For far too long, Seattle has dedicated resources that could have been invested in permanent affordable housing toward punishing the poor and worsening their situation by sweeping their homes and destroying their belongings. Not only are policies that punish unhoused people for attempting to survive in public space inhumane, courts have repeatedly found them unconstitutional. Yet, Seattle has continued sweeping people under the guise of the same public health and safety exemptions CA-29 seeks to enshrine in our Charter, which has only increased the number of unhoused and unsheltered residents and caused significant trauma. The government’s destruction of peoples’ homes and belongings when they have nowhere else to go is neither compassionate nor effective. Any solution that does not end the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness erects barriers that prevent them from obtaining services and housing, while also wasting precious resources that would better be used to generate needed permanent affordable housing.