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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Dozens of Clark County residents travel to Olympia to urge legislators to back rent stabilization

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: January 30, 2024, 7:04pm
5 Photos
Laura Ellsworth, left, and Nashida Cervantes of Council for the Homeless, pass out T-shirts and sweatshirts to participants taking part in Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day on Tuesday.
Laura Ellsworth, left, and Nashida Cervantes of Council for the Homeless, pass out T-shirts and sweatshirts to participants taking part in Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day on Tuesday. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

OLYMPIA — Ninety Clark County residents rode to the Capitol for Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day today to implore their state legislators to vote for bills that would slow rent increases and pay for affordable housing and homelessness services.

The advocates ended their day by confronting Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, demanding to know how she would vote on a rent stabilization bill that could die Wednesday without her support.

Earlier this morning, the advocates — as young as 9 and as old as 77 — donned red sweatshirts and packed into a bus before dawn.

Children rested their heads on their mothers’ shoulders, and people greeted each other with a handshakes or hugs.

“Why are you here?” seemed to be the question on everyone’s minds as they introduced themselves.

Although the laughter of friends reuniting filled the bus, so did whispered trials of homelessness, eviction and fear.

“The affordable housing and homelessness crisis has reached a crescendo in Washington state. We’re here in Olympia to correct that,” said Laura Ellsworth, public policy and engagement manager for Council for the Homeless.

Views of three homeless camps and 10 dilapidated RVs flashed through the bus’s rain-streaked windows before the granite walls of the Capitol came into view.

“This is what it takes to make change,” Ellsworth said as the bus pulled up to hundreds of people from across the state waving signs. “This is your building. This is your state Capitol.”

A face to numbers

The advocates, about 700 in total from across the state, lobbied their various legislators to pass several bills throughout the day.

Two of those bills make up the Affordable Homes Act, which would impose a new real estate transfer tax of 1 percent on properties valued over $3.025 million to fund affordable housing.

The advocates also pushed for the Washington Gift Card Accountability package. It would close a loophole that lets corporations keep money left on consumers’ unspent gift cards. Under the bills, money that isn’t used by consumers would pay for public services, including housing.

However, the main reason advocates arrived in droves was to support rent stabilization. It’s a key topic this legislative session, as it was last session. Companion bills House Bill 2114 and Senate Bill 5961 propose limiting rent increases to 5 percent a year, unless a new tenant moves in.

The bills are more moderate versions of last year’s rent stabilization proposals, which would have prohibited landlords from raising the rent more than 3 percent a year if they passed.

Opponents of the bills worry they would harm landlords, who would sell their properties, thereby lowering the rental housing stock. Supporters say rent stabilization is the only way to slow skyrocketing homelessness across Washington.

The number of people who are homeless in Washington reached an all-time high in 2023, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Legislators are well aware of that statistic, which they have read in reports tossed on their desks. Heather Sheppard and Dominique Horn told legislators about the human experiences behind those numbers.

Both have been homeless and now work for the nonprofit Southwest Washington Accountability Communities for Health, or SWACH.

Horn became homeless with her two children when the pandemic hit. Now, she has housing, but given that she pays $2,600 a month in rent, she still feels unstable.

“As a full-time worker and a renter, I’m not going to be stably housed until I have rent stabilization,” Horn said. “There is no stabilization for our family. It doesn’t matter if I have gotten into a house that I can afford. My landlord is able to make it unaffordable for me at any time.”

As Sheppard walked with Horn beneath the Capitol’s 5-ton Tiffany chandelier, she thought of the children she’s met sleeping in cars and people in Clark County dying on the streets.

She said few legislators know what it’s like to receive an eviction notice or trudge through a camp to meet people who were priced out of their homes.

“This is the closest thing to do to bring real life into this place,” Sheppard said.

Legislators

The advocates crowded themselves into a meeting with Cleveland and Sens. Ann Rivers and Lynda Wilson, as well as Reps. Sharon Wylie, Monica Jurado Stonier, Greg Cheney, Stephanie McClintock, Paul Harris and Kevin Waters.

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Waters, R-Stevenson, said he was touched by the story of a 77-year-old woman struggling to pay her rising rent.

“Thank you for telling me because my grandmother died last year,” he said. “My grandpa lost her pension, and he was in a senior community, just like you.”

Harris, R-Vancouver, listened as the Clark County advocates argued for the bills they support.

“The hardest one for me is rent control. I’m concerned about the unintended consequences of rent control. Not sure how I’m going to vote on it,” Harris said.

On Monday, Cleveland echoed those concerns. Her vote is key to moving the Senate bill on rent stabilization out of committee. If she doesn’t vote, the bill will die.

The advocates’ meeting with Cleveland, Wylie and Stonier started off with tearful stories.

“It is strange to explain what it is like to watch your bunkmate wither away because he has simply lost the will to live,” said Aristotle Scout, who lived in the Share men’s shelter for six months.

Duana Ricks, a veteran, stood up next.

“I wasn’t able to pay my rent last month because of a $300 rent increase,” she said through sobs. “We shouldn’t — all of these wonderful community members — we shouldn’t have to fight.”

Cheyonna Lewis followed her lead, trying to convey what it’s like to live on a fixed income while new fees for services, such as a “tenants benefits package,” plague her.

“I have a notice right now because I’m behind on my tenants benefit package,” she said. “I want someone to make a good decision for me so I’m not homeless. Please help me.”

Monica Zazueta and her son rose last. She explained she had been homeless before and feared becoming homeless again.

“I am begging you,” she said to Cleveland. “Will you vote yes for SB 5961 as it is to get it out of committee and keep it alive?”

The senator did not have a clear answer.

Cleveland said she had not gotten a chance to look over the amendments, which had increased the 5 percent limits on rent increases to 15 percent, and she wanted to understand the ramifications of it.

“Can’t fix a dead bill,” members of the crowd yelled.

Cleveland answered back that she has been on the phone with economists since the committee meeting Friday.

“I will tell you, price control is a failed Republican policy from the 1970s,” she said.

Cleveland left for another meeting, and the advocates left the room. They boarded the bus quietly.

“The fact that it got tense, that just shows the emotion behind it and the passion,” Ellsworth said on the bus ride home. “We’re all just human beings, including the senator. In the end, we’re all just doing what we think is right to end this crisis.”


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Heather Sheppard spent her time homeless in Oregon. 

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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