Courthouse fee that fights homelessness expiring

Advocates urge permanent fee for document recording

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Every time somebody goes to a county courthouse anywhere in Washington to record a real estate transaction, a document recording fee is charged. By law, $40 of that money is dedicated to homeless services.

That fee has made a huge difference in reducing homelessness across the state and locally, according to Andy Silver, the executive director of Clark County's Council for the Homeless. It adds up to $42 million statewide and $3.4 million a year in Clark County, he said, and the money pays for a wide variety of services that help to get or keep families off the street.

"Really it's the primary funding source we have for homeless services," Silver said. "It goes to pay for emergency shelters, rental assistance to keep people in housing and avoid homelessness, transitional housing and supportive services for people who have been homeless."

But the document recording fee, which became law in 2006, is scheduled to end in 2015. The impact of that change will be gradual, Silver said, but by 2017 there would be an overall 60 percent drop in homeless funding statewide and a loss of $2 million in Clark County.

That translates to 32,000 fewer homeless people getting housed statewide, according to a December 2013 report by the state Department of Commerce on homelessness and the money dedicated to it.

Locally, Silver said, the money currently serves approximately 1,600 individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in Clark County. If the law sunsets, he said, 1,000 of those people will lose access to services.

Counties are responsible for homeless services, and they need to start planning now if a crucial money stream is going to shrink and disappear, Silver said. "They'd have to get ready to really scale things back," he said.

That's why he and other homeless advocates have sounded the alarm — and stressed the success of the document recording fee. Overall, Silver said, homelessness has dropped by 30 percent statewide and 50 percent in Clark County since the fee became law.

On Thursday, Silver got some good news: House Bill 2368, to make the provision permanent, was passed out of the state House of Representatives by a vote of 62-36. Local votes in favor were Democratic Reps. Jim Moeller, Monica Stonier and Sharon Wylie, and Republican Rep. Liz Pike; local votes against were Republicans Paul Harris, Brandon Vick and Ed Orcutt.

Now the Senate will take up its companion bill, Senate Bill 6313.

Silver said the document recording fee has bipartisan support. "There's a pretty broad coalition for this," he said. When he recently lobbied the Legislature on behalf of the bill, he said, he was accompanied by Mike Fischer, a former Clark County Republican Party chairman, and Lyn Ayers, president of the Clark County Rental Association.

"The way it works is that most of the money, especially here in Clark County, goes to private landlords in the form of rental assistance for their tenants," said Silver. "The idea is that people who own multiple properties tend to rent them out. They're paying a small fee and it goes back to them."

"Now that the bill will be sunsetting, many of our members believe that it deserves to either have the sunset removed and make it permanent or at the very least extend it several more years," Ayers said. He added that Clark County "has done an effective job organizing and managing the program."

According to the Department of Commerce, $1.7 million a year in document recording fees winds up in the wallets of private Clark County landlords.