Washington is a great place to live - if you can afford it. Unfortunately, far too many people in our state are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Many more simply can’t, and are spending these cold nights in cars, tents, and doorways.
Based on the annual point in time count of people experiencing homelessness, overall homelessness in Washington has increased more than 10% in the last two years. Unsheltered homelessness (that is, people living outdoors as opposed to in a shelter or short term transitional home) has increased even more – 35% between 2014 and 2016. The most significant driver for this is the high cost of housing. It takes a full time wage of more than $23 an hour to afford the rent for a modest two-bedroom home. In the highest cost areas like King and Snohomish counties, an hourly wage of more than $29 is needed.
As housing costs have increased, incomes for the lowest income workers haven’t kept up. Between 2006 and 2013, incomes for the bottom 20% of households in Washington actually dropped by 10%. They’re finally on the rise, but only caught up to 2006 levels in 2015. Currently, minimum wage is $11 an hour and will be $13.50 by 2020. These increases are critical in helping households get closer to having enough resources to meet their basic needs, but still leave housing out of reach for many people.
When they spend most of their income for rent, families go hungry, because as Sociologist Matthew Desmond described in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, the “rent eats first.” Vulnerable seniors forego medicine. Homelessness leaves many people with mental illnesses on their own, and on the streets, where it’s almost impossible to get better. And parents struggle to help their children with homework under the dome light of the car that serves as their family’s home.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Even as rents have risen, public investments, coupled with local, federal, and philanthropic resources, have actually prevented homelessness from rising as much as it could have. Predictions based on rent, unemployment, and population could have caused the January 2016 Point-in-Time count to be almost 50% higher than it was. Public investments in affordable homes through the Housing Trust Fund, and in homelessness services, through a small fee on the recording of real estate related documents, were critical in preventing that increase.
We know what it takes to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live in a safe, healthy, affordable home, but we can’t bring the solutions to the scale needed without fixing Washington’s tax code. By cleaning up our state’s tax code – the most upside down in the nation – and getting rid of wasteful tax breaks, we can free up resources to solve homelessness and prevent families in every community from having to make impossible choices between paying for a home, and paying for food, medicine, and other necessities.
Governor Inslee’s budget proposal is a great start that shows true leadership. The Governor’s budget includes:
These investments will go a long way toward ensuring that all families have the resources to meet their basic needs. When everyone has the opportunity to live in a safe and healthy home, it benefits us all - families can address their medical needs, children succeed in school, and communities thrive.
While we’re advocating for even greater affordable housing and homelessness investments, the Governor’s proposal is an excellent starting point for the budget discussions that will play out in Olympia over the coming months. Notably, his budget fully funds our public schools, while also making other important investments like those described above.
The only way to do that – meet the state’s paramount duty to provide for the education of every child and still invest in other foundations that kids and communities’ need – is with a budget that includes tax reform. The Governor’s budget brings in roughly $4.4 billion in new resources by cleaning up the tax code and eliminating wasteful tax breaks that only benefit powerful special interests. Closing tax breaks on capital gains, carbon pollution, and eliminating other special deals raises billions of dollars that we are currently leaving on the table. A budget that responds to the McCleary decision, without cleaning up our tax code, would require deep cuts to other things that help children thrive and would continue to allow special interest to syphon resources out of our communities. Our children need great schools, but they need other supports too. Ensuring that every child can take advantage of educational opportunities means they need to have a safe, warm place to sleep at night, good, healthy food, and much more.
Washington is known for innovation and our state’s residents are smart and compassionate. In three Washington cities, residents have voted to invest together in public foundations to solve the housing affordability crisis and we expect more communities to do the same in the next few years. We know we can’t get something for nothing. Investing in affordable homes, services to end homelessness, and helping everyone meet their needs will create the thriving communities we all deserve to live in. Join us in fighting for a budget that cleans up the tax code so we can get there!
This guest blog post is by Rachael Myers, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. As the statewide champion for housing, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance is a powerful coalition of diverse organizations and individuals working together to ensure that everyone in Washington has the opportunity to live in a safe, healthy, affordable home.