Nobody should worry about how they’re going to pay rent, much less frontline health care workers who are expected to respond immediately to medical emergencies.

This is why Initiative 135, the social housing bill currently being considered in Seattle, is of paramount importance to resident doctors in the Resident and Fellow Physician Union (RFPU), recently affiliated with the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR), at the University of Washington.

RFPU/CIR’s membership consists of roughly 1,400 doctors who work at the VA, Seattle Children’s Hospital, UW Medical Center, Harborview, and a variety of other clinics.

We are on the frontlines of the health care system, working up to 80 hours per week and often struggling to make ends meet. We are your doctors taking care of loved ones in the hospital, and we need to be available at a moment's notice for urgent patient care. This requires us to live in a centrally located area in Seattle with a high cost of living–a major burden for our residents, many of whom are already burdened with student loan debt from their medical education.

I-135 aims to address this issue by increasing the amount of affordable housing in Seattle, as well as opening up affordability to more income levels. This would provide much-needed relief for resident doctors, who would no longer have to choose between paying for housing and paying off their student loans. Some of our members qualify for subsidized housing due to low pay; however, many of our members are just beyond the threshold of qualifying for subsidized housing, and rent absorbs a significant amount of our pay.

The University of Washington has been reluctant to increase resident pay in a way that competes with increases in cost of living despite RFPU/CIR’s efforts to bargain in good faith. Other health care staff share in this struggle, including nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, pharmacists, technicians, and custodial staff, among others.

Without the ability to strike, which is not a right that public employees have in Washington, it is highly unlikely that RFPU/CIR will achieve a significant increase in our pay–and yet the rent still increases in this city. We have recently negotiated increases in our housing stipend, formerly only $2,400 per year–but now $6,000 per year. This pales in comparison to the annual cost of rent in Seattle.

Increasing the availability of affordable housing would help to attract and retain more doctors, which is particularly important in Seattle, where the population is growing rapidly and the demand for health care services is increasing.

A lack of affordable housing options also poses a significant threat to the health of our patients, often putting them in life-threatening situations. More and more we see patients without housing or who must work several different jobs to afford their rent. We see patients who have to choose between housing and life-saving medications, which is an impossible situation. When people have access to affordable housing, they have the ability to achieve greater stability and security in their lives, which in turn improves their overall health and well-being.

I-135 is not only important for the financial well-being of resident doctors, but also for the safety of the community as a whole. It's important for the city and community leaders to support this initiative, and for residents to advocate for it, to make sure that it becomes a reality. 

Vote yes for I-135 to create social housing so that your city’s frontline health care workers can continue living near their workplaces and providing the best, most effective care possible.

Dr. Kevin Steehler, MD, MPH is a third-year resident in internal medicine and the lead negotiator of RFPU/CIR.