Are South King County’s poverty problems here to stay? | Livingston

What does success look like?

To our current community leaders, we must look pretty good. We have essential services being done, parks, police working hard, streets maintained, South King Fire and Lakehaven Utility District doing their jobs, and people are continuing to move to Federal Way — so we have growth.

But are we succeeding? Are our leaders understanding the challenges we face and how past decisions are affecting us as we trend toward mediocrity, poverty and crime? Federal Way has, per the census, a per capita (per person) income level of $32,788. The same statistic for our city neighbors is $32,477 for Kent and $35,288 for Auburn. The per capita income for Bellevue is $71,633, while Renton’s is $40,954 and King County’s is $55,374.

The income levels of South King County (SKC) cities are not doing well when compared to Seattle and Eastside cities. Many in our city are angry about the number of subsidized housing units in our city. At 4,100 and counting, we can see how county leadership is trying to keep people housed and from crossing over into homelessness. The median household rent in Federal Way is $1,411. For King County, it is $1,695. Bellevue’s is $2,104 and the median rents for Kent and Auburn are similar to Federal Way’s.

SKC is a mess. Collectively our leadership has failed, but all are trying to solve the problem. We give long-term tax breaks to developers to build subsidized housing for seniors. The subsidy is a lifeline to many and helps them be less stressed about life while maintaining a modicum of personal dignity.

Qualifying for a Section 8 housing subsidy requires a fair amount of work on the requester’s part as well as the owner of a rental unit. The enrolled unit owner is required to meet defined standards as a means of receiving a guaranteed payment. On average, Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers pay King County landlords $900 per month toward rent. The average voucher holder contributes $400 toward rent in King County.

Developers get tax breaks and low-cost loans to build or include subsidized residential units in what they are building. We generally direct our anger at the poor, homeless, addicted and those who are in need for whatever reason. We should be talking more about how broken the system is and ask why the problem keeps growing.

If we had to make ends meet on a per capita income of $32,788 or Federal Way’s median household income of $68,672, (median means that half of our city’s households are below this income point) we would welcome any outside assistance and subsidy we could get. Focusing on the households and people who receive a subsidy is a red herring. Demeaning those who are on fixed incomes, poor, working in low-paying jobs, homeless or victims of addiction reflects our anger being directed at a person in need and not at how we created destabilizing inequities within our society.

To address inequities and deal with low-income realities, the government underwrites and funds affordable housing units and offers subsidies. Each jurisdiction where affordable housing is prevalent, in significant numbers, has an increased need for social, health, education support and transportation services.

These services often are not sufficiently present because outspoken public voices see this as an unnecessary tax burden and an assault on the community. The unintended consequence is an increase in crime, fear, anger, and less community investment.

Federal Way, as well as SKC at the moment, may have more than its fair share of poverty problems. Our city has been trending this way for years without acknowledging it was on this path. A community begins degrading when quality executive level and middle-class jobs are not maintained or present. The opportunities for high-quality employment and retail within our borders are limited.

Our council to a large degree is powerless to overcome any of our city’s ills because we do not have the tax base, corporate clout, county or state legislative support to deal with community building. It is easier to focus on big ticket items like infrastructure, building affordable housing, investing in homeless shelters than to deal with the emotional fallout when communities feel dumped on.

Regardless of how we may feel as a community, subsidized housing and increasing need for social services are here to stay. Our leadership needs to be fighting for additional resources and financial investment from the county and state to help us improve our community and schools. We need quality jobs requiring higher education or trade skills with commensurate incomes to locate here. Our future requires a focus on inclusivity, opportunity, and support the goal of becoming one of the best school districts in the nation.

We are a diverse city, with a fair number of residents who are on fixed incomes, working poor as well as new to this country who deserve to live here with dignity. We have to figure out how to be a city that can overcome our proclivity toward punitive thinking for those who are less fortunate and be the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Becoming a city of the future requires forward thinking and a positive hands-on approach. Cities that succeed, build for success by being inclusive. The deal with inappropriate behavior by modeling integrity, set social guidance standards, and establish high standards for cultural awareness, value resident involvement and community building.

Changing Federal Way and challenging it to become a better city requires all of us to respect one another as well as expecting better leadership from those who are in charge. Poverty will begin decreasing when we invest in everyone’s potential with integrity and facilitate their integration into an economic system that is welcoming and recognizes its responsibility to the well-being of all.

Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at