Activists to rally Thursday to save homeless-services fee

Sen. Benton to speak out in display of bipartisanship

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Poverty activists and the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance are planning to rally at the state Capitol Thursday in support of an expiring state law that they say has been a huge help in curtailing homelessness.

They were taken by surprise when a move to extend the law, seen to have a broad base of support, was abruptly killed during a Senate committee hearing late last week.

"We don't want to go back to the days when we had twice as many homeless folks downtown," said Andy Silver, the executive director of Clark County's Council for the Homeless. "We have made such progress, we don't want to go in the wrong direction."

Beginning at 10 a.m., supporters of the law will bang a gong 5,043 times to recognize each individual who was counted as living outside in Washington state on the night when the 2013 "Point in Time" count, a federally mandated census of the homeless, was taken.

A spokesman confirmed that Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, will join the rally -- a move that underlines how much bipartisan support the bill has enjoyed.

Benton called the bill's death in committee "petty politics" in a statement released to The Columbian on Wednesday afternoon.

"Homelessness is a real problem in our state. More than 30,000 children suffer from the effects of homelessness at some point during the school year, and those kids need our help," Benton's statement says. "With all the government programs that don't do anything to actually solve a problem, why get rid of one of the few programs that actually works?

"This is a real problem, but one where we can make a real difference, and we should," the statement concludes.

The legislation at stake is the Homeless Housing and Assistance Surcharge Bill, ESHB 2368. The bill would extend a 2006 law that provides for a $40 surcharge every time a real estate transaction is officially recorded by any Washington county. The money has been dedicated to homeless solutions, and it has made a big difference in reducing homelessness across the state and locally, Silver said.

It adds up to $42 million statewide and $3.4 million a year in Clark County, Silver said, and pays for a wide variety of services that help to get or keep families off the street. Overall, Silver said, homelessness has dropped by 30 percent statewide and 50 percent in Clark County since the fee became law.

"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 $40 document recording fee is scheduled to shrink by $10 in 2015 and again by another $20 in 2017. 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.

Surprise

There's been widespread local support for the law from Clark County politicians as diverse as liberal Democratic state Rep. Jim Moeller and conservative Republican state Sens. Benton and Ann Rivers. Last month, Silver lobbied in favor of the bill in Olympia, accompanied by Mike Fischer, is a former member of the Clark County Republican Party board of directors, and Lyn Ayers, president of the Clark County Rental Association.

You can hear Benton speak up in obvious surprise on a recording of a Feb. 27 hearing of the Senate Financial Institutions, Housing and Insurance Committee, after State Sen. Jan Angel (R-Port Orchard) abruptly ended proceedings without considering the bill, which was the last item on its agenda. (The recording is at http://bit.ly/NVEnii).

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Madam chair, what about 2368?" Benton says. After being told in no uncertain terms that the hearing is over, he continues: "That is abrupt and very disappointing. We worked very hard on this affordable housing bill. And we had an agreed-to amendment."

"We had the votes," chimes in state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

"To abruptly adjourn this meeting without protecting the homeless really, really bothers me, and it will affect those who need a voucher just for housing over their heads on a cold day," says state Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-West Seattle.

"I was very surprised," Silver said this week. "This is basically petty politics on the part of the Senate leadership The majority leader put pressure on Sen. Angel, and she stopped the committee from moving forward even though there was clear majority support. It's just the worst type of politics, and the most vulnerable folks in our community are the ones who'll pay the price."

The state Senate majority leader is Rodney Tom of Medina, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans.

Benton's statement says: "There is too much at stake to allow petty politics to get in the way of helping people -- people who are depending on their lawmakers to do the right thing."

Since the committee has adjourned for this legislative session, Silver said, the remaining option is a parliamentary move called a "Ninth Order," which pulls bills that have stalled in committee — but have majority support — directly to the Senate floor. He said that's already been tried once and failed, but he's hoping that a new attempt will garner more support from Republicans who are convinced to stand up against their party leadership.

"It's a big ask, there's no doubt about it, asking senators to vote against their leadership," Silver said, "but if ever there was a time to do it, this is it."

He said he hopes constituents will flood their state senators with calls on this issue. "They need to know they've got the full support of the community here," he said.

The legislative session is set to end March 13.