Gov. Jay Inslee is effusive in his praise for Vancouver’s approach to homelessness.
That likely is expected from an upbeat politician who has earned the nickname “Sunny Jay.” But Inslee also delivers a controversial suggestion in talking about continuing efforts to reduce homelessness throughout the state. His support for changes to zoning policies to “open up more land” for housing should be approached thoughtfully by the Legislature.
During a tour of Vancouver on Monday, the governor met with The Columbian’s Editorial Board to discuss a wide range of issues — including housing. After visiting Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community and the site of the upcoming Fourth Plain Community Commons, he said he was encouraged.
“What you see here is very successful for a lot of different reasons,” Inslee said of the Safe Stay site. “One, when you do tiny home villages like this, you can house two to three times more people for the same dollar. So we’re getting two to three times more people to get out of the rain, to get in a secure environment, so they can work on some of their other challenges.”
The Legislature this year approved $800 million in spending to combat homelessness. Approximately $300 million of that is for rapid housing — small, temporary housing as exemplified by Vancouver’s Safe Stay Communities. The initial site opened in the North Image neighborhood, a second has opened along Fourth Plain Boulevard, and a third is planned for downtown.
“You have a community that wants to put solutions throughout the county, not put them all in one corner,” Inslee told the editorial board.
That applies only to the city of Vancouver thus far. With counties as the designated lead agencies in dealing with homeless services, we encourage the Clark County Council to follow the lead of the region’s largest city.
But in seeking long-range solutions, Inslee is focusing on changes to zoning laws. As a policy statement from his office states, “Restrictive zoning ordinances drastically limit areas where middle housing is allowed, and limit equitable opportunity for homeownership.”
The result, Inslee said, is a lack of housing for aging populations, first-time homebuyers and middle-income residents. From 2000 to 2015, population growth required 225,000 more housing units than were actually built. Now, with demand outpacing supply, middle-income people occupy low-end housing, rents increase, and low-income residents are left with few alternatives.
Contrary to a common trope, unhoused people do not come to Washington because our state is welcoming; they typically are neighbors who have been rendered homeless because of market forces. Several surveys have indicated that a vast majority of unhoused people in our state lived here when they became homeless.
Substance abuse and mental illness also often contribute to homelessness. But focusing on those factors does not mitigate the underlying issue — there is not enough housing in metro areas.
Inslee this year supported a bill supporting construction of townhouses, duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes near transit stops while eliminating construction of single-family homes in those locations. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, failed in a House committee.
Similar legislation is certain to appear next year, and it warrants consideration. As Washington leaders try to address homelessness, they must realize that the only long-term solution is increased housing.