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Housing affordability dominates two town halls by legislators from 17th, 49th districts

Legislators from 17th, 49th districts also asked about crime, energy

By Dylan Jefferies, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 24, 2024, 6:05am

Housing affordability dominated the conversation at two legislative town halls this week, where lawmakers from the 49th and 17th Legislative districts took questions from constituents.

In addition to housing, constituents also brought up crime, addiction, homelessness and energy, issues that are all correlated, according to Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver.

“Everything is all tied together,” she said Thursday evening at the 17th District’s virtual town hall, where she was joined by Reps. Kevin Waters, R-Stevenson, and Paul Harris, R-Vancouver.

As the legislative session draws to a close, lawmakers are working to edge bills they sponsored across the finish line. The 60-day legislative session ends March 7, so bills that make it to the governor’s desk may soon be signed into law.

17th District town hall

The trio of lawmakers kicked off the meeting by discussing bills they sponsored.

Wilson said she is disappointed Senate Bill 5010, which would add synthetic opioids such as fentanyl to a child endangerment law that only pertains to methamphetamine, is stuck in the House.

“That was my No. 1 bill this year because we need to be taking care of our kids, and it’s not happening,” she said.

Wilson also mentioned six citizen-backed initiatives before the Legislature, three of which will have public hearings next week, including Initiative 2113, which would provide police in Washington more leeway to pursue suspected criminals, and Initiative 2081, which would codify a “parents bill of rights.”

“Our constitution says that the initiatives are supposed to take precedence over anything else but budget bills,” she said. “Here we are two weeks from the end of session, and nothing has happened.”

Initiatives that are amended and passed by the Legislature during a hearing become law; initiatives that are not granted a hearing go to voters on the ballot as written.

Initiative 2117, which would repeal the 2021 Climate Commitment Act, was not granted a hearing.

“(The majority) doesn’t want to know what you think about that Climate Commitment Act,” Wilson said. “It is increasing costs for everyone. We need to get that initiative passed.”

Harris said price hikes in utility bills and insurance rates caused by the Climate Commitment Act is the issue he hears about most frequently from constituents.

“It’s the No. 1 issue in the last two weeks that I’ve heard from individuals who actually called my office and left me scathing phone calls,” he said. “These are senior citizens that can’t afford this. These are people that are on fixed incomes that are just tragically hit by this.”

Harris and Waters blamed price hikes on overregulation. The lawmakers also denounced House Bill 1589, which would limit natural gas use in Washington. They claim the bill will impose high energy costs on rural voters, many of whom already struggle to heat their homes during winter storms.

Costly bills compound with costly housing, making a bad situation worse, Harris said. And people being priced out of their homes leads to homelessness, addiction and crime, he added.

“All these things are intertwined, and it’s really difficult to talk about one without the other,” he said. “There is a lack of accountability just in general in our society.”

Attendees asked multiple questions about what the lawmakers can do to solve the housing crisis and rising crime.

Wilson said she and her seatmates are working hard to combat legislation introduced by the majority that could raise costs for constituents.

“Regulation is what got us into this mess, and we’re not going to regulate our way out,” Harris added, singling out House Bill 2114, which would prohibit landlords from raising an existing tenant’s rent more than 7 percent in a year.

“(Rent stabilization) is going to have, honestly, the reverse effect,” he said.

49th District town hall

Lawmakers from the 49th District see it differently. Sen. Annette Cleveland and Reps. Sharon Wylie and Monica Stonier fielded similar questions Tuesday evening during a phone town hall, where they praised House Bill 2114 and similar bills that address housing and homelessness.

Attendees asked the lawmakers multiple questions about what is being done to increase housing supply and stabilize rents, especially for vulnerable populations such as seniors and people with disabilities.

“The first thing we need to do is keep people in their homes who are in homes,” Stonier, D-Vancouver, said. “The second thing we need to do is keep pressure on supply, which I think we have made some effort in. The reason we called last year the ‘year of housing’ is because we were pretty focused on that in particular.”

Additionally, more resources are needed to keep people from becoming at risk of losing their housing, she said.

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The trio of lawmakers provided examples of bills before the Legislature that address housing supply and homelessness, such as House Bill 2114. They also mentioned multiple projects in Clark County that will provide affordable housing for vulnerable populations, such as the Waterfront Gateway project, which will supply more than 20 units of housing and 95 units of affordable housing in downtown Vancouver, and the Felida Park Senior Housing and care facility, a senior housing project in the Felida neighborhood that recently received a $24 million state grant, according to Cleveland, D-Vancouver.

“It took a long time to get in a space where housing is really, really in short supply, and we’re doing a lot of things to build more housing,” Wylie, D-Vancouver, said. “We’re looking for the short term to help people, and we’re looking for the long term to make sure that everybody can have a roof over their head.”

Another issue that needs to be addressed is private companies buying up land in Clark County and pricing out first-time homeowners, Stonier added.

“We aren’t going to have a supply for our community members to become first-time and future homeowners if we are allowing that supply to be bought up by people who don’t have a vested interest in our communities,” she said.

The lawmakers also answered questions about crime, the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program and initiatives before the Legislature.

The lawmakers from the 17th and 49th districts disagree about how to address the biggest issues facing Southwest Washington, but they agree on one thing: People are struggling, and they deserve better.

“I think that there’s a real strong recognition that these problems are really complicated,” Cleveland said. “Everybody wants them to be solved, but what I hear from people is they want us to do it right. But we know more now than we did 50 years ago. And so I feel optimistic. I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t feel optimistic.”

Lawmakers from the 18th District held an in-person town hall Saturday, where state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Reps. Stephanie McClintock, R-Vancouver, and Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, also answered questions about housing, crime, addiction and the status of bills and initiatives.

The three districts representing Southwest Washington will hold additional town halls in April, after Gov. Jay Inslee has signed bills into law, but no exact dates have been set.