This past Tuesday, 13 Imagine Housing representatives (including staff, Board members, and residents) traveled to Olympia to join more than 600 other advocates to ask our legislators to support more affordable housing in King County and Washington State. We knew this would be a tough ask: it’s the 2nd year of the biennium so the budget is already made and changing it is a difficult task. Plus, Washington is facing more than the typical challenges in an off-budget year. Between the McCleary decision and needing to increase funds for education and the wildfires that consumed much of Eastern Washington last year, it is difficult to find money for other issues. We expected we’d have to fight to have our voices heard above all the other cries for action this year – but it turns out we need to fight harder than we expected.
Our state and county are facing a homelessness and housing crisis of proportions we have not seen in our lifetimes. Last week, the One Night Count of people sleeping outside and unsheltered delivered news that many expected, but that still managed to shock us all – an increase of 19 percent county-wide, after a 21 percent increase the year before. This is a 44 percent increase in homelessness over two years. The increase in East King County was 80 percent. And this year, we face a $7.5 million shortfall in funding for programs that reduce and prevent homelessness. This all has been the result of an intersection of issues: inadequate mental health and addiction treatment, increasing income disparity, a history of racial segregation and discrimination, a sorely inadequate supply of shelter beds throughout the county, and now a sudden surge in home prices and demand for housing that has pushed many of those who could just afford their rent before onto the street.
We are fighting for something incredibly important that affects the lives, livelihoods and futures of thousands of people. We weren’t making small asks in Olympia either. We were asking our state representatives not only for legislation, but for nearly $20 million in additional funding for these issues. Ten-million dollars from the capital budget to go directly toward funding the development of new affordable housing, and $7.5 million to fill the shortfall in homeless support programs. We were also fighting for much-needed tenant protections that for years have had unfair and lasting impacts on families with low-incomes: fair and affordable tenant screenings, fair reporting of past evictions, and outlawing discrimination based on source of income or use of a Section 8 voucher. All of these barriers effectively keep many people from securing safe, stable, affordable places to live. And yet the practices remain in place, and it is up to our legislators to create policies to change them.
It is up to us to speak on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. To tell our legislators that when a person with a low-income has an eviction on their record—even if they were not at fault—it becomes very difficult to ever rent again in today’s tight housing market. And to share with them that we have more than 2,500 individuals and families with low-incomes that are waiting for one of our affordable apartments. To help them understand how impossible it is for a single mother earning less than $15 an hour to afford rent in Kirkland or Bellevue, close to her job, where a two-bedroom apartment costs upwards of $2,000 a month.
This week marks halfway point through the 2016 legislative session in Washington State. By 5pm this Friday, all bills that will be voted on by the legislature must have been heard and voted on in their policy committee. Any bill not yet heard will be pronounced dead for the session.
So we ask you: if you care about these issues; if you want to see more diversity in your community; if you can fathom how difficult and cold it is to sleep outside every night; if you understand the life-long repercussions of being a homeless child; if you see that the private market is not filling a critical need for affordable housing, and that the government must step in to help, please call your legislator today and ask them to vote yes on providing $10 million to fund affordable housing. Tell them it is all of our responsibility, and they need to find a way to fund it. Tell them that you want to welcome affordable housing into your community. Tell them that this matter is urgent, and it cannot wait.
~Kathryn Jacoby, Operations Coordinator