The Housing Crisis in Our Schools

by Robert McKay, Substitute Parapro


This is the first in a series of articles about the housing crisis as it impacts our youth and families in SPS. We’ll be collecting stories that put a human face on the crisis as we build toward bold, transformative solutions that treat housing as a human right. Have a story to share from your school? Contact the author on Twitter @fin4sopo or by email at


Seattle’s deepening crisis of affordable housing and homelessness doesn’t stop at the doors of our schools. Since the Great Recession, the speculative bubble in urban real estate has brought financial profits roaring back, while families have struggled to keep an affordable roof over their heads. In Seattle these trends have pushed homelessness up on the rising tide of rents.

source: King County via Housing for All Coalition presentation,


While supply is starting to catch up and slow the explosive rent growth, the market isn’t going to make the city affordable again. Nor is it going to get our 3500 homeless pre-K to 12 students the immediate help they need. The impact of the crisis is starkly visible to front-line education workers: students making long commutes from shelters, missing their much-needed school breakfast, struggling in class, acting out as the time approaches to go home—to homelessness. The number of students facing this situation has tripled since 2008.



The decade since the last financial crisis has seen around 35,000 units of affordable housing vanish from King County. That “affordability” is defined as rent under 30% of income for those making 0-50% of Area Median Income (AMI). If you pay over 30% of your income for housing, you’re “cost-burdened;” over 50% is “severely cost-burdened.” That’s where 58% of renters making under 30% AMI found themselves in the first half of this decade, by conservative Census Bureau/HUD estimates.

Inadequate Policy Solutions

The city declared a homelessness “state of emergency” more than two years ago and stepped up some services. But homelessness can’t be separated from the affordable housing gap, and so far the main policy framework for addressing that gap has been HALA, the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda. Its various pots of money and its zoning and regulatory tweaks were projected to create just 6,000 new “deeply affordable” units accessible to folks making 0-30% AMI, over 10 years, according to HALA’s 2015 report. (The initiative is supposed to build another 6,000 units affordable to those making up to 60% AMI, via incentives to private developers.)


Kids & Families Impacted

Bigger families have to fall under lower per-person income thresholds to qualify for what little affordable housing there is, but any family making less than $107,360 a year would find the city’s average 2-bedroom unaffordable today. One result: frequent moves due to economic eviction, not just actual homelessness, disrupt kids’ lives and lengthen their commutes, says Chanel Murray, an Eastside teacher who lives in Seattle. Education workers often can’t afford our school neighborhoods, either.


This past fall I shared most of my lengthy commute to a north-side school with some siblings who got on near one of the downtown temporary shelters. These kids had been on my radar as some of the most at-risk, and only after several weeks on the job did I make the connection. While I saw teachers and staff going the extra mile every day to support them, the best support can’t erase the chronic stresses of poverty and housing insecurity.


It can be hard to see the true scale of the problem if you don’t have a bird’s-eye view. And while subs like me get to see more of the district than most, we don’t get to look very long or very deeply. But by going out and talking with other front-line workers, a clearer picture begins to emerge.


Gerald Donaldson’s Family Support office at Leschi Elementary is piled with boxes of donated food and supplies, sourced from an elaborate patchwork of local nonprofits and some government entities. Gerald’s door is always open, and his generous spirit is materially evident in the room. In the hour a comrade from the Transit Riders’ Union and I spent there on a Tuesday morning, Gerald rattled off his impressive array of community partnerships. “If you hustle, you can do it,” he said. That is, you can fill the weekend and vacation gaps between the school meals poor students rely on. Kids came in and out, one boy staying to eat breakfast, chatting with us before he was shooed off to class. The boy, Gerald told us later, lives in the same downtown shelter as the kids whose bus I used to ride. “It’s almost like an identity crisis, not wanting to admit there are 3500 homeless students,” Gerald said. He counts 63 documented homeless students at his school.


Talk turned to what the district and our union could do to mitigate the problem. At the district level, Gerald sees the potential for efficiencies in bulk purchasing and the institutionalization of supplemental nutrition programs, which are currently ad hoc and therefore paid for at retail prices, and are hampered by lack of storage, centralized purchasing, and funds. We also discussed the need for more professional development focused on the impacts of homelessness and poverty, something SEA members can advocate and help develop.

Organizing Gets the Goods

But since economic injustice doesn’t stop at the school doors, our responses can’t either. We need the voices of educators, parents and students inside big, fearless social movements. Organizing gets the goods, as these movements have shown with preliminary victories like the City Council’s Progressive Revenue Task Force and its March 1 recommendation for a $75 million big business tax to fund deeply affordable housing and services.

There’s much more work to be done, as corporate and NIMBY opposition swings into action. Amazon paid no federal income tax last year, and they won’t pitch in willingly to offset the gentrification they’ve helped cause. So let’s raise our voices with the students who want a future Seattle they can live in. Go to or contact the author to share your story or learn how to get involved.