Bill to boost aid for homeless failed in Olympia

Increasing document recording fee did not survive budget negotiations

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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A bill aimed at increasing funding for homeless services did not survive Washington’s budget negotiations last week.

The Vancouver-based Council for the Homeless had made House Bill 1570 one of its biggest priorities.

“The state Legislature has basically turned its back on this session. It’s a slap in the face to every child who’s trying to get a night’s sleep in a car,” said Andy Silver, the nonprofit’s executive director.

The measure addressed what’s known as the document recording fee, a $48 fee to record the deed after a home purchase. While some of the fee is kept by local entities and some goes to the state, all of it goes toward helping people experiencing homelessness.

The bill would have prevented a portion of the fee from expiring in 2019, and would have allowed local counties and cities to increase the fee — thereby generating more money for homeless services.

State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said last-minute negotiations led to 1570 getting dropped and swapped out for House Bill 5254, which keeps the fee the same and postpones its expiration until 2023. Stonier had sponsored 1570, which was championed by homeless advocates, and she considered it a bipartisan way to provide relief for homeless families.

“I think if politics hadn’t gotten in the way of negotiations, we would have seen better policies,” Stonier said. “We were left with no time to do the work.”

In the end, Stonier was among a handful of representatives who voted “no” on 5254. The bill passed the House with 85 votes in favor and nine against. The Senate passed it 47 to two.

“My ‘no’ vote was out of frustration that we didn’t get where we should have been,” she said. “The Senate made time a bigger issue and it got in the way of good policy.”

Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said there seemed to be a mutual understanding of the dire issue of homelessness in Washington.

“Honestly, we got a lot of positive feedback from both Democrats and Republicans,” she said. “It was a bit surprising to see the Legislature completely turn their back on this issue in the end.”

She said the housing alliance, whose members include the Council for the Homeless, had emailed, called and met with legislators to advocate for 1570. The plan, she said, since the bill didn’t pass, is to bring it up again next year and demand more.

“It is not OK to let people suffer on the streets,” Thomas said.

State Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, voted “no” on 1570 and “yes” on 5254, which, he said, was what most Republicans did. While voting against 1570 was a tough choice, he said, Senate Republicans sent a clear message that they weren’t going to pass a bill that could double document recording fees.

Harris sits on the boards for Vancouver-based homeless service provider Share and Columbia River Mental Health.

“They weren’t excited when I said that bill wasn’t going to pass,” he said. “I’m rather pragmatic on this kind of stuff.”

With 5254, he said, legislators have time to build bipartisan support around other solutions and maybe form a task force dedicated to the issue.

Cities and counties, he said, can also apply to get real estate excise tax money.

“I believe we have a homeless issue, and I believe we need to address it,” Harris said. “Doubling the fee on people who buy property is probably not the way to go. Let’s find other avenues.”

Harris added that he would’ve been OK with just getting rid of the sunset. He added that with money coming in from Proposition 1, Vancouver has more money going toward the issue than some other jurisdictions do.

“It’s still incredibly disappointing,” Silver said. He added that Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Fund is focused on providing housing, not homeless services such as additional emergency shelter and helping people get back on their feet.

“People should be outraged that the state hasn’t stepped up to provide any help,” Silver said. At best, he said, 5254 maintains the status quo.

According to his agency, there’s a gap between needs and the amount of resources available. Existing countywide housing programs have an 86 percent success rate, meaning a participant does not return to homelessness after two years.

However, 82 percent of people who try to access these programs are unable to get in.