Supporters of a new movement called Just Housing are bringing awareness to the lack of low-rent housing options in Olympia and Thurston County.
At least 25 people gathered Tuesday outside Olympia City Hall where Just Housing organizers urged those in attendance to lobby public officials for a solution. The issue resonates in the local homeless community, especially those who need emergency shelter or end up sleeping outside.
“I’m just really tired of telling people what they already know — that there’s no place to live,” said Renata Rollins, a community organizer and advocate for the homeless population. “Our number one goal is to speak the truth.”
During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s Olympia City Council meeting, some people spoke of their struggle to find a safe place to sleep and how that struggle has led to citations for trespassing, for example.
“We need to embrace people closest to the edge right now,” said Selena Kilmoyer, who lives at the Bread and Roses community for low-income activists.
According to a comprehensive report by the United Way, nearly 12,000 households in Thurston County — about 12 percent — live below the federal poverty level while another 23 percent struggle to afford basic necessities such as housing and child care. The same report shows that Thurston County ranks near the bottom in Washington for housing affordability with an average monthly rent of $721 for a single adult and $963 for a family of four.
Rents are rising while the housing inventory is shrinking. Thurston County has a rental vacancy rate of 3.1 percent and an average monthly rent of $971 for a single-family residence, according to 2016 data from Apartment Insights of Seattle. Last year, Thurston County’s vacancy rate was 4.3 percent and the average monthly rent was about $893.
The U.S. Census reports that Washington has some of the lowest rental vacancy rates in the nation, with 3.8 percent availability compared to the national average of about 7 percent.
Some people at Tuesday’s council meeting said their public assistance, such as disability benefits, can range from $197 to $733 a month — a range that falls short of paying the average rent in Thurston County.
Councilmember Jim Cooper said the city needs to fix the affordable housing problem and stop criminalizing homelessness.
“I sit here and try to hold back tears because people are getting tickets for sleeping,” Cooper said. “We need to figure something out.”
Several efforts are underway to address the housing issue in Olympia and Thurston County.
▪ In 2013, the 2.17-acre Quixote Village opened in west Olympia with 30 single-room detached cottages for homeless residents.
▪ In 2014, Interfaith Works opened a 37-bed overnight emergency shelter at First Christian Church, and the shelter has been full ever since. That same year, a shelter called Pear Blossom Place opened downtown to serve families with subsidized apartments and social services.
▪ Billy Frank Jr. Place is under construction at the corner of State Avenue and Adams Street and will open in 2017 with 43 housing units for homeless veterans, homeless young adults and the disabled.
▪ An advocacy group called the Home Fund is lobbying Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater officials to support a potential property tax ballot measure in 2017 that could create 500 new affordable housing units in Thurston County.
One beneficiary of such a tax would be Homes First, a nonprofit organization that remodels and leases affordable housing in Thurston County. The organization is currently trying to raise $2 million to invest in more properties.
Check it out
Organizers with Just Housing will meet 3-5 p.m. Mondays at the Partners in Prevention Education (PiPE) headquarters, 408 Seventh Ave. SE, Olympia. To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-402-0271.