Two months ago, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared a state of emergency recognizing growing homelessness in Seattle and King County. Since then, we’ve witnessed a record-breaking amount of city funds invested to help solve this emergency—most recently with the Mayor’s announcement of $45 million to build 809 new affordable homes next year.
This is great news for residents of Seattle, and it was met with much fanfare by the media, but what gets lost in the story is that $45 million is not nearly enough. Local communities cannot solve our homeless emergency alone. It will take a combined effort from local, state, and federal jurisdictions working together.
Make no mistake, homelessness is a human made, nation-wide emergency.
It’s a trend we’ve seen repeating itself up and down the west coast, with Los Angeles, Eugene, Portland, and the state of Hawaii all drawing local and national attention as they’ve considered or formally declared a state of emergency in their communities. In an attempt to find real, meaningful solutions, West Coast mayors held a summit, uniting in their appeal to the federal government to reinvest in affordable homes and truly partner with local communities in finding solutions to homelessness. We applaud Mayor Murray’s involvement in this summit, and look forward to his continued leadership on this issue.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, we need to create 7 million more affordable homes across the country to safely house our nation’s lowest income people. In Washington alone, we need 250,000 more homes.
Washington is currently failing to protect its most vulnerable citizens. We see it all the time not just in visible homelessness, but as our friends and neighbors quietly fall through the cracks of our state's ever-weakening safety net.
Our state legislature has the power to weave the safety net back together, and to stand in one accord with Seattle and say, “Yes, we will address the homeless emergency in our state.”
But will they?
Governor Inslee released a supplemental budget in December that makes a good start.
It includes much needed support for people with mental illness, veterans, and low-income families. It avoids further cuts to the safety net. It includes funding to create and preserve affordable homes and is creative in how it targets that relatively modest investment. For example, it incentivizes local jurisdictions to outlaw denying tenancy to someone just because they use a housing subsidy. (In most cities in Washington, it’s perfectly legal to refuse to rent to someone just because they rely on a subsidy like a federal housing voucher.) That's important stuff.
The legislature should respond by embracing the governor’s recommendations, and go further by adding additional funds for affordable homes. This will be another tough budget year and the investment won’t be enough to solve the problem, but we can make progress. An additional $10 million would be a good start—and would bring the state’s housing investment for this two-year budget cycle up to about half of it’s highest level historically.
Ultimately, though, the legislature has to admit that we simply are not bringing in enough money to pay for all the things that we value and that it needs to get serious about tax reform. Still, there are non-budgetary ways for the legislature to act as well.
If the legislature can’t adequately address the affordable housing crisis, it should at least get out of the way and provide local jurisdictions with the tools to address the problem. The state should grant greater taxing authority, and repeal the all-out ban on rent stabilization policies, allowing cities the opportunity to have meaningful rent regulation debates.
The legislature also has an obligation to eliminate harmful barriers to the private rental market. Currently, prospective tenants all over Washington are unable to find safe, healthy, affordable homes for reasons that are unfair and just don’t make sense. Some are discriminated against because they receive housing subsidies as a source of income. Others are denied because tenant screening reports misrepresent whether a tenant was truly evicted from a previous home, whether they won in court, or were simply wrongly named. Many people scrimp and save until they finally have enough to pay first and last months' rent plus security deposit, only to run out of money when they have to pay unnecessary screening fees over and over and over again.
The state legislature has the power to eliminate all of these barriers. They should use that power in the upcoming legislative session.
The housing crisis is an emergency—not just for those experiencing homelessness, but for everyone who struggles to pay the rent or for whom one unplanned expense is the difference between having a home or not.
We've seen great leadership in Seattle, and now it’s time for our state government to follow suit.
We know that this is not a natural emergency. It is human made and humans can fix it. Starting on January 11, it’s the legislature’s turn to try.
Nicole Macri is the board chair of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, a housing and homelessness advocacy group. Rachael Myers is the group’s executive director.