Monday, September 21, 2020
Sept. 21, 2020

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As smaller Washington cities grapple with homelessness, Republicans take up the issue in the state Legislature


In the 2020 legislative session, a Republican lawmaker wants to authorize a local sales tax increase to pay for homelessness programs.

No, that’s not a typo.

Despite his party’s historical antipathy to new taxes, Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, says he’s “going to ask my caucus to compromise on that point, and I’m hoping the other side of the aisle would be willing to meet halfway.”

The “halfway” includes conditions that would send a message to Seattle: Cities could only collect the tax revenue if they prohibit safe drug consumption sites and unsanctioned encampments within 500 feet of schools, parks and courthouses. Seattle has sought to open a safe consumption site that oversees illicit drug use with the goal of decreasing overdose deaths, but has faced a threat from the U.S. Department of Justice if it does.

Stokesbary is just one of the Republican lawmakers from smaller Washington cities who have come to Olympia this legislative session hoping to address homelessness.

While a proposal from Gov. Jay Inslee to spend more than $300 million on expanding housing programs and building shelters faces a major hurdle in the Legislature, Republican lawmakers representing suburbs and smaller cities are also proposing bills that respond to frustrations they see on their home turf, as homelessness has grown more visible in their communities.

“We’ve prioritized education, health care over [homelessness] in the past, but I think we’re at a point where all four corners of the building are saying this has to be a priority,” said Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw.

For example, the number of students identified as homeless in the Enumclaw School District more than doubled between the 2014 and the 2018 school years, according to October enrollment data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, from 70 to 143. December enrollment data showed those numbers quadrupling between 2013 and 2017.

But one of the issues challenging these lawmakers is that some smaller cities don’t want to provide homelessness services and risk becoming draws for people who need them, Irwin said.

“That to me is an incredibly destructive path to walk down,” Irwin said. But lawmakers shouldn’t dismiss those concerns, he said.

Some Democrats remain skeptical of the proposals.

Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, who has a long history of working on homelessness issues outside the Legislature and is now deputy director of strategy at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, thinks “people are sincere in wanting to find real solutions.” But that doesn’t mean the ideas they have are evidence-based, she said.

“I think they’re listening to their constituents about the challenges, but many communities don’t have much experience in implementing interventions, so they’re just going on best guesses or what seems like common sense to try,” Macri said. “But I think we have some examples in what works and I think that’s what we should be talking about.”

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said she didn’t think Stokesbary’s bill was a “serious proposal” to help with homelessness. She is sponsoring a bill to fund affordable housing by eliminating the business and occupation tax break for banks collecting interest on first mortgages.

“I think that it [Stokesbary’s bill] seeks to push poor people to the brink and then to provide funds for cities after the fact,” she said of the bill’s conditions on unsanctioned camping.

Kuderer said she’s interested in finding new revenue sources for homelessness — and allowing communities to decide which programs are right for them without the kind of restrictions that are in Stokesbary’s bill.

Gov. Inslee’s proposal to use some of the state’s rainy day fund to pay for homelessness programs faces a steep hurdle. The proposal would need a 60% vote of approval from the Legislature to free up funds. Democrats hold majorities in both houses, but neither majority surpasses 60%.

“I feel that this is such an emergency that I would be willing to do that, but not all the Legislature does,” Kuderer said.

Not all the bills are so divisive. Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard, is introducing a bill that would use some money from the state’s document recording fee to fund programs that match homeless people with homeowners willing to share space on their property.

Caldier’s district, which includes Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton, struggles with housing availability and affordability when Navy families arrive, Caldier said. Kitsap County’s 2019 one-night count showed a 16% increase in unsheltered homelessness over the prior year.

“Once the ships come in, prices increase because they are given a housing allowance that a lot of people who are on a fixed income cannot compete with,” Caldier explained. “And a lot of people are sometimes one paycheck short of being homeless.”

Republican Sen. Hans Zeiger, whose district includes Puyallup, has introduced legislation that would use some of the state’s portion of the document recording fee to fund homeless diversion programs for local governments. Diversion pairs people who are homeless, or at risk of being so, with specialists who can help them navigate their housing challenges, often with the aid of one-time financial assistance.

“It’s very interesting because most of the time I have been serving in the Legislature, if you asked the public in the Puget Sound region what’s your top issue, I think it was fairly consistently jobs and the economy,” Zeiger said. “But more and more, homelessness is a huge issue of concern to the public.” Puyallup’s recently elected mayor has also pledged to tackle homelessness.

Zeiger’s bill requires that 25% of the state’s portion of the revenue go to the diversion grant program, or an estimated $1.4 million per year. But the state Department of Commerce and some homelessness nonprofits are opposing the bill because it would redirect money from other homelessness grants and programs.

These kinds of concerns probably won’t disappear as the session continues.

“This is one of the very few times you see everyone in Olympia agree this is a problem,” Rep. Irwin said. “You’re going to see everyone in Olympia agree on 90% of the policy. And you’ll see everyone in Olympia also disagree on how we should fund it.”