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Jan. 29, 2023

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Legislature goes slow on affordable housing

Critics say not enough has been done to aid renters, cut down on number of homeless

By , Columbian Political Writer
Published:

Even though Dominique Horn is only a couple of months away from graduating college with a bachelor’s degree and on the cusp of becoming a social worker, the memories from her days spent in a homeless shelter with two young children remain vivid.

This legislative session, Horn traveled from Vancouver to Olympia with the hopes of compelling lawmakers to act on a piece of legislation that would have prohibited discrimination based on source of income. After fleeing a bad situation, Horn received a federal Section 8 voucher a couple of years ago to help subsidize her rent. She quickly discovered that didn’t mean housing for her family would come easily.

“I had decent rental history. I had decent credit. I had letters of recommendations. … I had all these things that were barriers to some people, but the one barrier was the landlord didn’t like where the (rent) was coming from,” Horn said. “In this rental market, if people aren’t accepting your source of income, it makes it near impossible to get a place.”

Horn told lawmakers Section 8 vouchers are still stigmatized.

The measure did not pass this legislative session. Lawmakers are in the midst of a 30-day legislative session with the goal of passing the operational budget and adequately funding the state’s public schools. But going into this session, many legislators hoped to ease the state’s affordable housing crisis and decrease the growing homeless population.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said she was disappointed more wasn’t done this session. Cleveland also championed a measure that would have required landlords to give an extra 10 days’ written notice before eviction, bumping the 20-day period to 30 days. That measure also died. Cleveland was hoping Vancouver, which has already passed several ordinances to protect renters, such as a longer eviction notice, would serve as an example for the state.

“I see affordable housing issues as needing to be one of our top priorities,” Cleveland said. “I don’t feel there was enough focus on the issue this session, understanding, of course, we have to solve the education funding crisis and that has to be the top focus.”

But, Cleveland said, there is still time to make a difference. Andy Silver, executive director of the Council for the Homeless, is also holding out hope.

“We get advocacy fatigue sometimes, but this next month or two is going to be really crucial that we demand our state Legislature follows through on our rhetoric and delivers and gives us resources to help deal with our affordable housing and homeless crisis,” Silver said.

Here’s a look at some of the moves lawmakers could still take this session:

• Both capital budgets in the House and Senate have carved out millions to allocate to the housing trust fund.

“The House has about $106 million in investments and the Senate has $98 million, so we’re advocating for the higher level, obviously,” Silver said. “But we were happy to see both the House and Senate taking the affordable housing crisis seriously and invest in the trust fund, which is the primary state mechanism to help build affordable housing.”

The housing trust fund allocates money directly to affordable housing builders. Nonprofits or housing authorities apply for a grant and are provided with capital to offset some of the costs, so a lower rent could be charged to tenants.

• One of the primary funding mechanisms for homeless services is what’s known as the document recording fee. To record the deed after a home purchase, there is a $48 fee. Some of that fee is kept by the local county, some goes to the state. But all of it is spent to help the homeless. A big portion of the fee is set to end in 2019. A measure that is still being negotiated would not only remove the sunset date, but it would give local counties the option to increase the fee. Silver, with the Council for the Homeless, said increasing this fee is a big priority for the county.

“In Clark County, only 37 percent of people who need emergency shelter, including kids, receive it right now,” he said. “Only 18 percent of people who are homeless receive assistance.”

But for the lucky people who do receive extra help?

“On the flip side, 86 percent of the people who are homeless and receive assistance haven’t come back in the homeless system within two years. What it shows is the assistance in the community is helping. But only a small amount of people are getting it compared to the need.”

• With the operating budget still in play, many uncertainties remain. Programs could be slashed without much notice. There is also always a chance any bill could be revived before the session officially adjourns. One measure floating around could alter the state’s land-use policy and make changes to zoning and urban growth rules that remove barriers and could help create more housing.

“To this point, there hasn’t been enough done and a lot remains,” Silver said. “I’m hopeful they will get it done. I think we’re in a crisis right now and it’s going to get a lot worse. The federal government continues their discussions about further disinvestment in affordable housing and response to the homeless.”

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Columbian Political Writer