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News / Northwest

How much has Washington state spent on housing in the past decade?

Legislators have poured billions into housing and homelessness programs, mostly in the past two state budgets.

By LAUREL DEMKOVICH, Washington State Standard
Published: May 21, 2024, 2:21pm

For much of the past decade, the amount of money Washington lawmakers dedicated to housing and homelessness programs grew gradually, climbing from around $200 million to $400 million in each two-year budget between 2013 and 2021.

But in the last four years, this spending has surged, according to an analysis of state spending data provided by the Office of Financial Management.

These figures show that more than $4 billion – or around 80% – of the roughly $5 billion directed to expanding housing and preventing homelessness since 2013 has been packed into the past two state budgets.

Part of that spike is due to an infusion of federal pandemic aid. But it also reflects a growing acknowledgment among lawmakers that Washington has a housing problem, particularly a shortage of affordable homes.

The additional spending has gone toward improving homeless services, purchasing temporary shelters, building more affordable housing and providing rent assistance.

While it’s helped, affordable housing construction is still not meeting the estimated need, rents remain too high for many tenants, and homeownership is often out of reach for lower and even middle-income households.

The numbers

According to the data from the Office of Financial Management, Washington has poured about $3.4 billion into homelessness prevention programs and another $1.9 billion into housing construction since 2013, for a total of around $5.3 billion.

Between 2013 and 2021, spending on housing and homelessness programs averaged about $262 million under each two-year budget. In the past two budgets combined, it was upwards of $4.2 billion, including more than $1 billion in federal COVID aid.

The state’s entire operating budget for the current two-year budget cycle is around $72 billion.

Outside of federal funding, one of the main ways the state funds housing and homelessness services is through a document recording fee, which people pay at their county auditor’s office when retrieving certain legal documents.

Funding from that fee is split up between a range of programs, including counties’ homeless housing plans, rent assistance, incentives for landlords who house people with rent assistance, and building and maintenance of permanent supportive housing.

During the budget cycle that ends next June, more than $562 million is dedicated to programs funded by these fees. That’s up from more than $251 million during the previous cycle. Before 2021, less than $100 million was set aside for these programs every two years.

Another pot of money is the state’s housing and essential needs support program, which provides low-income people with essential needs items, like hygiene products or transit cards, or rental assistance if they cannot work due to their physical or mental condition. That fund saw a boost in the last four years as well. In this two-year budget cycle, lawmakers set aside $130 million. That’s up from $114 million the cycle before and $78 million in the 2019-2021 cycle.

Since 2021, Washington state has spent about $1.5 billion on housing construction. That’s compared to about $446 million between 2013 and 2021.

Most of the money spent on construction in the last decade has been through the Housing Trust Fund, which gives out grants for affordable housing providers.

From 2013 until 2019, the trust fund was the only account lawmakers used to fund affordable housing. Back in 2013, lawmakers dropped $56 million into it. During the past two years, they’ve devoted a record $500 million to the fund.

The state has also set aside money in recent years to purchase emergency housing and temporary shelters, distribute loans for rural housing rehabilitation, and preserve mobile homes.

Has it helped?

The money for housing construction has helped, according to the Department of Commerce.

On average, around 24,100 units were built in Washington every year between 2011 and 2015. In the next four-year period, the state averaged almost 41,000 units every year. Between 2020 and 2023, about 46,400 units were built annually – slightly above the projected annual need of 46,118.

Despite more home construction overall, Tedd Kelleher, housing policy manager at the Department of Commerce, said in a statement that investments in affordable housing have not kept pace with Washington’s population growth.

According to Commerce, only about one affordable home for every five households that need one is available in Washington. The state needs to build about 27,011 low-income units every year to keep up with demand, the department’s estimates show. Between 2020 and 2023, the statewide average for the number of units built for low-income families was 23,877.

Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said the state needs to put more emphasis on affordable housing construction, not necessarily all types of new housing construction.

“We don’t need more luxury apartments built,” she said. “What we need is affordable housing.”

When it comes to funding for homelessness support and services, Thomas said the money has helped those who are experiencing homelessness, but the state needs to do more to address the root causes of homelessness, like steep rent increases and the lack of affordable housing.

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Every time a state program helps someone avoid homelessness, she said, more people fall into it, creating a “constant churn.”

“Every one of those dollars has changed somebody’s life,” Thomas said. “But there’s nothing to stop more people from experiencing homelessness.”


Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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