Homeless in Seattle

As the gateway to the Klondike, Seattle boomed during the gold rush of the late 1800’s. And with the explosive growth of Amazon in recent years, the Emerald City is experiencing a new boom. Everything here is surging: the economy, the population, house prices, and consequently homelessness. King county now ranks #3 in the nation for homelessness, after New York and Los Angeles, 47% of whom lack proper shelter.

I decided to use LEGO to illustrate this problem by imagining Seattle as an Architecture skyline set, featuring the Space Needle, Pike Place Market (complete with brass pig and gum wall), the Columbia Tower, Smith Tower, ship yards, and a plethora of street-side tents.

The good news is that local government has just levied money to finally attack this humanitarian crisis, no thanks to Amazon. The Seattle-based retail giant, now one of the most valuable companies in the world, threatened to halt all of its downtown expansion rather than cough up less cash than they probably spend keeping their cafeterias stocked with kombucha and avocado toast. Meanwhile the company’s founder – now the world’s richest person – allegedly ponders sinking the bulk of his fortune into advancing space travel.

Maybe before we start putting people in tents on Mars, we should first try to reduce the number that are forced to live in them down here…

24 comments on “Homeless in Seattle

  1. Purple Dave


    From the sounds of things, the local government basically looked to Amazon to bankroll city-operated housing and homeless services, which resulted in Amazon shutting down construction on Amazon-owned housing and announcing that they’re sending between 4500-7000 new jobs elsewhere. Since the city was only looking at building 1800 units with that money, it sounds like Amazon has actually done more to alleviate the housing problem in their response than the city was hoping to do with the Amazon Tax.

    Seattle needs to keep in mind that “Second Headquarters” is _REALLY_ easy to shorten to “Headquarters” if they choose to escalate this further. They also need to look to North Dakota’s fracking boom, where the state imposed a law that said you had to have housing lined up before you could take a job. They did this because at one point the fracking companies had basically taken out long-term leases on every hotel room nearby, and there wasn’t anywhere else to put anyone.

    Do that and force Amazon to deal with the problem on their own dime rather than having the government try to tax them so it can mismanage the money, and things will probably get straightened up in very short order. Go this route any further and the city will remember what it’s like to be a boom town when the boom goes bust.

  2. Andy Wagner

    Seattle city council understands the effects of taxation well:
    Want less plastic bags on the street? Tax plastic bags.
    Want less sugary drink consumption? Tax sugary drinks.
    Want fewer people moving to town, driving up housing costs? Tax job creation.

    I live in Seattle today, but I grew up outside Detroit. I’ve got some serious concerns with taxing job creation.

  3. Karl

    As someone who lives and travels in this tent city trash heap, it is not Jeff Bezos responsibility to “fix it”. The city spends 100’s of millions of tax dollars every year and the problem is only getting worse! Its gross mismanagement and poor city leadership, allowing rampant drug use, mental illness and crime to go unchecked. By handing out the “goodies” with no expectations or consequences, you get what we have. 90% plus of the local homeless are by choice and need mental help and/or jail and forcibly removed from the drugs. Your Lego city doesn’t show the garbage heaps, heroin needles and stolen property the “poor homeless” leave in their wake! People like you sir, are part of the problem (the enablers). How many junkies do you house? How much do you volunteer of your wallet? Please, don’t steal our money to fund your feel good ideas (that clearly aren’t working)

  4. Eugene

    I don’t leave in Seattle. I do agree with you about homelessness and the booming companies that should help out more to solve the problem.

  5. gregandbirds

    Damn, you just hit my trifecta: public policy, economics, and Lego. All I have to say is that all those Rand-ian “taxation is theft” folks never understsnd that in a market economy, markets fail. And one of the classic definitions of market failure is when there is demand for a good (like affordable housing) but no supply. Seattle’s solutions might be too radically progressive for some and not always with the desired outcomes, but at least they are trying to correct the failed market. Good job to them.

  6. KOSTECKI Frederic

    Thumbs up for the picture, fake lego Architecture box, model /set of the city your article & your idea, and big thumbs up for the purpose and goal.

  7. Valerius Antias

    This is a very creative way of highlighting a massive problem.

    How does the artist feel about the tension between individual and group? By choosing the architecture scale, we tend to see the overall picture – although there are some light pieces on pegs between the cheese slope tents that I think represent people. By highlighting the group-level impact, do we lose a sense of the individual’s experience – particularly since the antiseptic appearance of the Skyline series leaves things “clean”.

  8. Legoinsel

    I read you guys because it’s often about fun Lego stuff and if you can combine it with a message (and this isn’t the first time) or vary the topic, this is even better.

  9. R

    You people should truly get your facts straight. It has been the failed leadership of Seattle that has led to this problem. It is not up to corporations to bail out misguided liberal cities.

  10. Kevin

    Props to him for calling attention to a terrible problem in an innovative way.

    It sounds like you’re saying Amazon threatened to stop expanding in Seattle because of the homeless problem? Do you have a source for that?

  11. Rich

    I really wish you’d built it out and photographed it from multiple angles! Still, it’s a strong message.

  12. Scott

    Does Jeff Bezos have the right to spend his money however he wants? Yes. (Hooray Capitalism) Does his idea to spend it on space-travel when he has enough to literally end poverty in America while still remaining a multi-billionaire say something about moral bankruptcy among the extremely wealthy? Definitely.

    No one is saying it’s a crime to be at the top of the economic ladder, but to look at the problems around you and do so little when you could do so much is a clear signal that accumulating as much wealth as the 1% has disconnects them from society in a way that makes them oblivious to how bad it really is for some. At that point I have no problem with an uncorrupted government stepping in and saying some of it has to go back to the people. Trouble is, the wealthy own the politicians, the media, and the markets, and the corruption is endless, rendering this impossible. I have no solutions, just observations, and one of them is that as long as the elite have the type of control they have, these problems will continue to compound themselves.

    Yes, this is a Lego blog, and its contributors do that phenomenally. But all art is inherently political, so by nature, once in a while you will see a stance here that you disagree with. If you want to hide from the issues, go watch CNN.

  13. Bob

    As someone who works for another, smaller company that would have also been forced to pay Seattle’s proposed-now-un-proposed “head tax,” this was an ignorant, rash, and grossly unpopular idea by an ignorant, rash, and grossly unpopular City Council. The proposed tax revenue had no concrete plan for dispersal, meaning they proposed taxing businesses before figuring out where to allocate money. Seattle doesn’t even efficiently spend the tax dollars they have now for homelessness – yet the businesses are the bad guys for not wanting to waste their dollars as well? Gimme a break.

    Nice skyline though…

  14. PilotMKN

    Perhaps it’s time to put down the LEGO bricks and pick up a basic economics book, like “Economics in One Lesson” by Hazlitt or “Basic Economics” by Sowell.

    And to the guy above bashing Ayn Rand (taxation is theft) – she wasn’t a Libertarian or AnCap. Why don’t you name an actual person who said taxation is theft like Murray Rothbard? An as a person who firmly believes in the free market I can tell you that we are fully aware of “so-called” market failures, but we recognize they are always caused by the government.

    If demand and prices are high, what is the tried and true method to bring down those prices? Increase supply. If you paid attention in Econ 101 you’d know this. No, before you open your mouth about “market failures ” did you spend even 5 minutes on Google looking at all the various ways the city of Seattle artificially restricts the supply of housing? I can guarantee that you didn’t. Have you looked at various research papers comparing housing costs in cities with restrictions on housing supply vs. cities that don’t? I can guarantee that you didn’t. The only “failure” here is the failure of the government to allow the market to respond to the housing needs of the Seattle market.

  15. Andy Wagner

    Purple Dave,
    You know so much about economics…I’m just curious:
    Is it a market failure when cities use zoning regulations to prevent low cost housing to be built?
    Is it a market failure when cities building codes prevent lower cost construction methods (by over specifying things like water heat size, for example)?
    Is it a market failure when cities require “parking minimums” that double construction costs in high density neighborhoods?
    Is it a market failure when city permitting processes charge high fees and delay construction projects to the point that banks won’t fund them?
    Is it a market failure when the Federal government hyper-inflates the national housing market by subsidizing home loans to even the wealthiest of investors?
    People keep saying that Seattle has a market failure because we can’t build fast enough to keep up with the new job growth the city is experiencing, so I’m just curious what a market failure really looks like.

  16. Purple Dave

    @Andy Wagner:
    Ummm…I think you mixed me up with someone else. I didn’t really get into economics at all, much less “market failures”. I basically left it at Seattle taking a shot at Amazon, and Amazon decking them in response. From Bob’s post, it sounds like Seattle cried uncle, but I don’t know if Amazon reinstated their construction projects.

    I also know very little about Seattle’s political situation (I have lived my entire life in Michigan, and currently live in Metro Detroit), but here’s what I have read about their economic situation. They imposed a $15/hr minimum, and it backfired. They just picked a fight with the biggest guy in the yard and landed flat on their back. I have no idea what housing laws Seattle has in place, but clearly they aren’t working as intended if they’ve ground housing construction to a halt. And I know that while many people look at megacorps like Amazon and think they need to give up more of the money they’ve managed to rake in, they forget that they aren’t chained to their hometowns. There’s always another city that’s hungry enough to offer some crazy incentives to lure them in, and if you tax them too aggressively they won’t think twice about relocating. You see it all the time with sports teams when the city decides they’ve been far too generous in the past.

    By the way, you did have it wrong (or rather not right enough) about taxing job creation. Seattle was trying to tax job retention. The only way out of their tax was to reduce or eliminate your workforce, which makes it even worse. Worst case scenario for Seattle is Amazon moves their headquarters out of state, and moves their shipping operations outside of the city limits. Then Seattle won’t get a dime.

  17. Doug

    The notion that we/the government have to kowtow to these massive corporations, lest they “take their business elsewhere,” is sickening. That’s a lot of unchecked power.

  18. gregandbirds

    PilotMKN: Thanks for your recommendations, although I didn’t come across either of those books when I was getting my economics degree. And contrary to your guarantee that I have never researched housing supply issues in various communities, that was in fact central to the core of my master’s thesis on more efficiently implementing public housing policy. Now if you will excuse me, I do in fact want to go play with my Legos.

  19. MN

    A lot of interesting comments, I have no opinion on the homeless matter but I see 2 things that I think most people lose perspective on that are mentioned here multiple times.

    If you live in the US then your standard of living is better than 80, possibly 90% of the world. So when you arbitrarily start asking someone who has more than you to give more make sure that if the same exercise was required of you to help the 80%+ who are worse off than you that you would be willing to give freely under the same conditions.

    The demonization of these “massive corporations” is a little unfounded I think because at the end of the day the corporation is only doing the bidding of the people. So if you don’t care for what a particular company is doing your recourse is to stop using its services altogether and make sure that you don’t own any stock in it directly or through any mutual fund that is a part of your retirement plan.

    Companies only become massive because the population encourages it through buying its services and investing in it. Said company will not think twice about trying to please the government, it is instead concerned with what its customers and shareholders think. So although Amazon may be based in Seattle, it is owned by people around the world, and as such it won’t be kowtowing to a local government for something that isn’t warranted.

    A third option would be to buy a controlling stake in the company and then you can have it do your bidding, so long as you don’t discourage the remaining shareholders from fleeing the investment.

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