Policy Topics

Housing policy leaders discuss ways to get people into homes at 2023 YDWA Convention

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.

It fea­tured:

  • 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.”

Kud­er­er agreed.

“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.

Caya Berndt

Caya is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor based out of Spokane, Washington, writing about Lilac City politics, the Evergreen State's 5th Congressional District, and related politics. She previously hosted the inaugural episodes of NPI's PNWcurrents podcast. She works at the Unemployment Law Project and is a graduate of Central Washington University, with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and sciences. Caya also has a minor from CWU in law and justice.

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