Special education teacher Shannon McCann speaks out on the need for rent caps.
Special education teacher Shannon McCann speaks out on the need for rent caps. THOMAS BARWICK / GETTY IMAGES

Middle school is hard enough, but it’s especially hard for kids who have to worry about housing. And with more than 40,000 students already experiencing homelessness in Washington, far too many of our kids have far too much to worry about.

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It’s an overlooked aspect of the conversation, but educators see how detrimental housing instability is to our kids’ physical health, their mental health, and their ability to learn. We watch our students stress over where they will sleep at night, and that’s on top of the normal stresses of the classroom.

But unless we rein in outrageous rent hikes, which push families into homelessness and housing instability, our children will continue to bear these unbearable burdens.

That’s why our kids need the legislature to step up and pass HB 2779, a bill introduced by Representative Nicole Macri. This bill would limit exorbitant rent hikes and ensure that everyone in our community has a stable home.

Last year one of my close colleagues spent over $800 on her second grade student in order to keep him, his brother, and his grandmother in their rental housing. When asked if she broke the rules by giving them money, she just looked exasperated and said, “But what am I supposed to do?”

I know another student with a brother and two little sisters who had to move in with their grandmother in Oklahoma after their last rent hike. And I’ve heard of immigrant families who have moved a couple blocks because of rent hikes, and then they’re shocked to find out that they moved into an entirely different school district, away from the community and school supports they established. Housing stability is community stability, is school stability.

These stories aren’t unique. Nearly every educator I know has taught a student without stable housing, which makes sense when you look at the numbers. Despite an economic uptick in Washington, in 10 years the number of homeless children in our state has almost doubled. As families get hit with triple-digit rent increases—unaffordable for everybody except the wealthy—the reality is that more of our kids are living with the stress of housing instability every day.

These rent increases don’t just hurt our kids, they also hurt our school employees. Sadly, our education support professionals (paraprofessionals, secretaries, bus drivers), who are often the first to notice when our students’ housing is in jeopardy, are the closest to housing instability themselves. Last year we had new teacher sleeping in his car for two months because he couldn’t find affordable rent. He had to abandon his job and move back to Southwest Washington to live with his parents. Another veteran educator, who is close to retirement age, had to move after her husband passed away because she couldn’t afford the rent on her own.

We know homelessness will increase when rent exceeds more than 30% of a renter’s income. And right now in Washington, more than 70% of our lowest income earners are severely rent burdened, paying more than 50% of their income on rent.

Currently, there is nothing in the law that prevents slumlords and corporate rental developments from increasing the rent by any amount they wish. And we know low income renters are more likely to see higher proportional rent increases, all while wages and benefits remain stagnant. These rent hikes leave many of us vulnerable to exploitative rent increases without any protections against retaliation or discrimination. Right now, many Washingtonians have to cross our fingers and hope that our corporate landlord will be reasonable. But a law creating common expectations for both landlords and renters would protect us against slumlords acting on greed.

I doubt any teacher got into public education to get involved with housing policy. But it doesn’t take any educator very long to come face to face with how much housing policy has to do with teaching. Without the protections in HB 2779, the minute it is profitable for them a few landlords will be able to push us and our neighbors out of the neighborhoods where we’ve made our homes.

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I refuse to believe that this is our collective vision for our state. As homeowners and renters—no matter our race, or our class, or our political ideology—we must join together in support of HB 2779 to ensure that everyone in our community has stable homes.

It’s time our lawmakers put our kids first. It’s time to cap rent increases.

Shannon McCann is a special education teacher in King County and president of the Federal Way Education Association.