Wednesday, May 12, 2021
Housing is the biggest item in most of our household budgets, so when housing is too expensive, it’s a big problem for a lot of people. In Washington, construction of homes for low- and moderate-income households hasn’t kept pace with demand for years. So more people are competing for fewer spots, driving up prices. For many people that means spending more than they can afford on rent or living farther from work. Employers have trouble attracting people to work in a community where housing costs are out of reach. And for those who were already on the edge of financial hardship, increased housing costs may tip them into homelessness.
And that was before the pandemic. Since last spring, the economic and public health impacts of COVID-19 have worsened these serious problems. By this January a quarter million people in Washington were behind on their rent and worried that an end to the Governor’s eviction moratorium could mean losing their home. Our challenge this year has been deadly serious, but the Legislature stepped up with important bills and spending to address those currently behind on their rent, protect tenants into the future, and fund more affordable housing.
We invested over $1 billion into rental assistance and homelessness prevention to make sure that folks who have fallen behind on rent during the public health emergency are able to get caught up. That assistance will keep people in their homes, and help make landlords whole (I’m especially concerned about the small landlords with a mortgage of their own). At the same time, we provided tenants facing eviction the right to legal counsel, and we’re supporting a dispute resolution framework alternative that, in many cases, will help landlords and tenants work their differences out. With that assistance and those tools in place, we will be able to end the eviction moratorium this summer and know that when we do, it won’t be leaving hundreds of thousands of people in a desperate situation.
We’ve also made historic investments of over $350 million into the Housing Trust Fund, which supports the construction, acquisition or rehabilitation of low-income housing units as well as acquiring existing buildings and property that can be rapidly converted to meet the urgent need for more housing.
Housing is also a critical component of recovery from substance use disorder that is often left out of the equation. While we fund treatment, it is often a lack of affordable and accessible housing that can contribute to a relapse. I worked closely with other representatives from our area to invest $4.5 million for on-site housing at the Swinomish Tribe’s Didgwálič Wellness Center for addiction recovery and treatment. A nationally recognized model, Didgwálič provides wrap-around services like on-site childcare, transportation, case management. Adding on-site housing will grow that success and help more people successfully recover from substance use disorder.
While these investments were possible because the Democrats in the U.S. Congress passed recovery funds in February, we know that these challenges will be ongoing. So, Washington’s Legislature passed a surcharge on recorded documents like real estate transactions, which will provide over $100 million per year to support critical homelessness and housing services. This is the first time our rental assistance program will have a permanent, dedicated revenue source, fixing a serious structural problem with how we fund housing and homelessness prevention programs.
Longer term, we need to build more homes people can afford. The multifamily tax exemption is an existing incentive that some cities, including Bellingham, have used to create denser and more affordable housing. But it hasn’t worked as well as it should. I was proud to partner with Sen. Mona Das to pass a significant reform bill that will increase the number of cities using the program, increase the protections for the tenants in the apartments created, and make homes that are built under the program more affordable. We were even able to include a new option for permanent affordable homeownership, based on successful models like Kulshan Community Land Trust. This is a great opportunity to create more missing middle housing, homes that working people can afford while they build wealth and put down roots.
Our communities are hurting, and the housing crisis is a big part of that. Our state legislature took this challenge seriously and I’m so pleased to be able to share all of this progress with all of you. We have all stuck together through this pandemic, and now it is time we recover together.
Alex Ramel is a House Representative for the 40th Legislative District.