Hey Cascadia Advocate readers! This is Caya signing in with another recap of a panel I was fortunate enough to attend at the annual YDWA (Young Democrats of Washington Convention, held at North Spokane High School this past weekend.
This session, moderated by NPI’s Kamil Zaidi, the host of our upcoming Candidate Soundings podcast, focused on the unique challenges Eastern and Central Washington face in tackling the region’s extremely tough housing crisis.
- Ben Stuckart, a former Spokane City Council President;
- Julie Garcia, a board member for Jewels Helping Hands, a local provider of services to the Lilac City’s unhoused population;
- Terri Anderson, Spokane Office and Statewide Policy Director at the Tenants Union of Washington State;
- … and State Senator Patty Kuderer (D‑48th District: Redmond, Kirkland, Bellevue, Medina, the Points communities), who represents NPI’s hometown in the Washington State Senate along with Manka Dhingra and is one of NPI’s foremost legislative champions.
With Spokane’s burgeoning “big city” status has been coming with big city challenges. Over the past few years, the Lilac City’s homeless population has exploded. The most recent point-in-time count estimated 2,390 unhoused people in Spokane — a whopping 143% increase from 2016.
The housing market has failed to catch up.
The city’s housing troubles go back decades. For example, when the city constructed Riverfront Park, the crown jewel of Spokane’s downtown area, in 1978, many people were displaced. Though beloved by tourists and locals alike, the city culled a swath of low-income housing to do so — a sacrifice the city has taken decades to recover from. Rents began creeping up in 2017, before the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic launched them into the realm of outright unaffordability for many of Spokane’s long-term tenant population.
Today, the city is struggling to resolve the dual dilemmas of a lack of housing supply and a lack of protections for tenants against exorbitant rent increases.
To meet the current demand, the city would need to create an estimated 25,000 additional housing units, and an additional 7,000 subsidized units — a task the city isn’t moving with any speed towards completing anytime soon.
The panelists, however, made sure the conversation was solutions-focused rather than simply dwelling on the city’s housing predicament.
Kamil opened the conversation by asking the panelists to talk about housing-related legislation moving at each level of government: city, county, and state.
Stuckart cited HB 1628, a bill sponsored by Frank Chopp (D‑43rd District: Seattle) as an example of a bill that could address some of the aforementioned issues. 1628 did not move out of the Washington State House during the recently concluded session. However, the bill could be revived in 2024.
It proposes to bolster funding for low-income housing, backed by the real estate excise tax (often abbreviated to REET) of 4% for real estate sales over $5 million. The revenue would be dedicated to creating more housing.
Anderson pointed out that tenants lack protections statewide, especially in rural areas that lack strong local governments with progressive leadership.
“Housing stock alone isn’t going to solve the problem for vulnerable communities […] who need housing,” she said. She pointed to some actions by the state, including HB 1110, a zoning reform bill mandating duplex and fourplex construction in certain localities based on population, as addressing the problem of the “missing middle,” but doing little to help the vast swaths of low-income families for whom fair market housing isn’t affordable.
She also noted Washington’s historic lack of adequate “just cause” eviction laws, laws preventing landlords from terminating a rental agreement without clearly specified reason. The Washington State Legislature did pass a voter-supported just cause eviction bill sponsored by Representative Nicole Macri (D‑43rd District: Seattle) in 2021 that requires landlords to give a reason when evicting tenants — but of course that law did not put an end to unjust evictions by itself.
Senator Kuderer concurred, adding that Washington’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act was considered to be “the worst in the country” when it was first drafted sixty years ago. Since then, she has helped lead the charge to make changes, such as allowing for judicial discretion if a tenant is behind on their rent due to extenuating circumstances, and the creation of a statewide right to an attorney in an eviction proceeding. These have had tangible, positive impacts on tenants.
But we still have a ways to go.
She spoke to the lack of rent stabilization as yet another challenge facing low-income tenants. Rent stabilization, which establishes limitations on rent increases, can be a contested measure even among Democrats. However, Kuderer says there are plenty of ways to implement rent stabilization.
“What we keep hearing is this is a supply issue,” she said. “And I agree. We do. Once we have a housing inventory increase, we’ll see a drop in rent. Okay. But we won’t be building those tomorrow. It’s going to take decades… During that time, it seems there should be some rent stabilization.”
Noting that conversations around housing can be fraught, Zaidi then asked the panelists to dispel some housing-related myths they encounter.
Stuckart took issue with the vague nature of the term “housing crisis,” saying it didn’t adequately communicate the scale of the problem. There is a crisis in homeownership, he said, with home prices rising by 60% over the past three years. Rents, too, increased by 60%. As for low-income, subsidized housing, a prospective tenant can expect to be waitlisted for three years.
“The solutions are very different,” he stressed.
“You can solve the missing middle, but it doesn’t solve the rest!”
Anderson sought to dispel the myth of the “Mom and Pop Landlord,” who right wing forces portray as the supposed victim of increased tenant protections.
“The term is flawed,” she said.
“And has a racist basis, because I don’t think they’ll be looking like our mom and pop.” 80% of Spokane’s Black population are renters — meaning they are and will be the ones suffering the onslaught of runaway rent increases.
“We shouldn’t be distinguishing [between] a small-scale landlord or a corporate one,” she said. “Renters still deserve protections. Mom and pops are not the dominating group in the industry today.”
“Another myth is that homeless folks don’t have jobs,” she continued. “They do!”
Garcia concurred, and took aim at NIMBYism, an acronym for “Not In My Backyard,” to refer to those who are against housing development.
“In our community,” she said. “There is a lack of political will keeping folks outside and unsheltered.”
She stressed that advocacy groups need to be gathering data about the chronically homeless about their barriers to housing, and how laws that do and don’t pass affect the community.
Kuderer brought up the uniformity clause in the Washington State Constitution, which requires that taxes be uniform across different classes of property. In other words, any property, whether it is a residence or an office, is taxed the same way. This is a barrier to creating a truly equitable tax code based on ability to pay.
Stuckart pointed out that Spokane’s vacancy rate was sitting at 1.5%, and most of the available land was taken up by vacant parking lots, of which Spokane has 78.
“Other cities have highest/best use tax. This takes away the incentive to build parking lots, or let them sit. The uniformity clause will not allow cities to use this tax!” he said.
The panelists then touched on the question of temporary shelters for the unhoused during the audience Q&A, especially with regards to people of color and the LGBTQ+ population, for whom shelters can be dangerous.
Garcia’s answer as sobering: at this time, there really wasn’t anywhere someone could go to feel safe.
“Most shelters are being shut down or consolidated,” she said. She pointed to the recently opened Trent Resource and Assistance Center in Spokane as an example.
The shelter, which opened in September of 2022, is a refurbished warehouse in an industrial district. Though it holds three hundred and fifty beds, eight months after its opening, it still lacks basic necessities such as bathrooms or showers, and is, to borrow Anderson’s phrasing, “on the verge of imploding.”
“Congregate shelter modeling doesn’t work,” she said, adding that de-intensifying shelter environments actually leads to better housing outcomes.
Despite the discomforting reality of barriers to attainable and affordable housing, the panelists were resolute in expressing a hopeful vision for the future.
“Homelessness is a solvable problem,” Kuderer said.
“We just have to have the political will to do it.”
If the sentiment of the panel could be expressed in one sentence, it might well be housing is a human right and we have an obligation to get our unhoused neighbors in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho and beyond into homes.