An advocacy group is lobbying leaders in Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater to support a property tax that would pay for more affordable housing in Thurston County.
The Home Fund group wants the county’s three biggest cities to put a housing levy before their respective voters sometime in 2017.
Supporters say more affordable housing options will reduce the strain on local homeless shelters, hospitals and jails while also serving the county’s most vulnerable people. The goal is to create 500 new affordable housing units and help more than 2,400 households during the course of the seven-year levy.
As proposed, such a tax would collect 36 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value — about $3.7 million per year for seven years — and channel that money toward low-income housing and related social services.
Thurston County already ranks near the bottom in the state for housing affordability, with an average monthly rent of $963 for a family of four, according to a recent United Way study. About 12 percent of Thurston County’s 99,815 households live below the poverty line, and another 23 percent qualify as struggling.
Paul Knox, executive director of the United Way of Thurston County, said all three cities need to step up and help solve “one of the most visible problems we have.”
“Affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges that working and low-income families face,” Knox said. “I see the housing levy as one of the pieces for solving the affordable housing issue, but it’s not the only piece.”
City leaders have been initially skeptical about asking voters for a property tax, at least in the 2016 election.
In April, the mayors from Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater sent a letter to the Home Fund group about their concerns that a housing levy would confuse voters by competing with other ballot measures. Another concern was the lack of time to inform the public.
“Regardless of which jurisdictions participate, there needs to be sufficient lead time in order to increase public understanding of the issue,” the letter states. “We need to continue to talk and work together to develop this proposal into a measure that can be successful and make a difference.”
Another suggestion in the letter is to “propose more targeted use of existing funds” such as future federal Community Development Block Grant funds.
Charles Shelan, who recently retired as CEO of Community Youth Services, is among the small coalition of local residents spearheading the Home Fund group. He acknowledged that the affordable housing crisis affects Olympia more than Lacey and Tumwater, but said a housing levy in all three cities would have a cumulative effect countywide — and give struggling renters some relief.
Shelan said the Home Fund group needs more time to discuss the housing levy with local city councils and will focus on the 2017 election season instead of the upcoming November election as they originally intended.
“What we want to do is get out in front of the issue before we get into a situation like Seattle, where people who work in the community can hardly afford to live in the community,” he said. “This will certainly be a step in the right direction.”
To discuss the matter further, a work session between the Home Fund group and city councils from Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater will take place 5 p.m. July 12 at Olympia City Hall.
One immediate obstacle is that the housing levy model may not work in Tumwater because the city already has reached the limit for what it can collect from taxpayers through property taxes.
Tumwater officials say other options could be considered, such as a sales tax, a voted capital bond, a utility tax, or a portion of Community Development Block Grant funds.
“It is difficult to go to the voters and ask for support when we don’t have a specific plan for spending the funds,” Mayor Pete Kmet told The Olympian. “The more specific the proposal is, I think the more likely it will gain support.”
When it comes to a Thurston County blueprint for the housing levy, the Home Fund group is looking at Bellingham.
In 2012, Bellingham voters passed a housing levy with 56 percent approval. The levy charges 36 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value and generates about $3 million a year for the city of about 85,000 residents.
Of that amount, about 51 percent goes to creating more rental housing and about 20 percent is devoted to rental assistance and support services. The rest is divvied up for housing preservation, loans, homebuyer assistance and administration.
Bellingham reports that 74 percent of people who benefit from the housing levy are earning less than $14,250 a year.
Bellingham’s levy coincides with the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, which was adopted in 2008. Since then, the city reports that more than 500 affordable housing units have been created to serve more than 2,000 people.
“It’s pretty apparent here and all over the state that we have a housing affordability crisis that is causing significant hardship to many families and individuals,” said Greg Winter, who was co-chairman of the Bellingham Home Fund Campaign.
Winter said the willingness of voters to tax themselves at the local level, as they did in Seattle and Bellingham, can open the door to more state and federal assistance for affordable housing.
The payoff of Bellingham’s levy, he said, comes not just in serving vulnerable people, but in creating construction jobs and raising the overall quality of housing through what amounts to “a modest investment.” The levy also is a valuable financial tool because of the additional funding it can leverage.
“It’s definitely serious business asking the property owners to pitch in to do this,” Winter told The Olympian. “But when you see the enormous return on investment, it’s really a good deal.”
Bellingham became the second city in the state to pass a housing levy, after Seattle did so in 2009. Seattle voters will decide in August whether to adopt a new plan that would double the levy amount to $290 million over seven years. The average Seattle homeowner would then pay about $122 a year, and the money would go toward building or saving 2,150 units of affordable housing in the city.
The concept has been gaining traction elsewhere in the state. The Columbian newspaper reported that the Vancouver City Council will decide June 20 whether to put a housing levy on its November ballot. If approved, the levy would generate an estimated $6 million a year for affordable housing in the southeast Washington city.
Last year, David Gooze and his family moved into a homeless shelter after living in Capitol State Forest.
Gooze previously lost his job and tiny apartment in Lakewood. It was a tough time for him and his wife, Ocean, and their children Mariah, 13, Aubrey, 11, and Keegan, 9.
“Living in a shelter is hard,” he said. “It’s not your place. It’s not your space.”
Things began to turn around when Gooze was connected with Homes First, a nonprofit organization that remodels and leases affordable housing in Thurston County.
The house from Homes First — a modest 1920 craftsman on the east side of Olympia — has become a catalyst for helping the Gooze family move forward and catch up on bills.
The house also has enough rooms for the children, and “everybody’s happy to do their chores around here,” Gooze said. Near the front door is a bicycle, known as “the family vehicle,” which serves as Gooze’s primary mode of transportation to his full-time job at a call center in Hawks Prairie.
“People need options for getting out of shelters,” he said. “Anything that would make it easier for folks is a good thing.”
As a potential beneficiary of the housing levy, Homes First would be able to use that money to qualify for more matching grant dollars and ultimately expand its outreach, said executive director Trudy Soucoup.
“We’re passing up opportunities every day because we don’t have public funds to put into it,” said Soucoup, who supports a housing levy.
Affordable housing is seen as one way to help reduce homelessness. Rapid rehousing programs such as SideWalk have been whittling away at homelessness by connecting more than 500 people with housing since November 2012.
The 2016 Thurston County homeless census counted 579 homeless people on Jan. 28, which was an increase from the 2015 count of 479 homeless people, but an overall decrease from the 2010 count of 976.
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reported a total of 1,455 homeless children in the Olympia, Tumwater and North Thurston school districts in 2015.
Affordable housing and homelessness were campaign issues during the 2015 elections for Olympia City Council.
Several candidates, including now-Mayor Cheryl Selby, supported more housing and social services for the homeless, especially in downtown Olympia. Councilwoman Jessica Bateman, who was elected last November, said the Home Fund proposal also can spark more discussion about solutions at the regional level.
Bateman noted Olympia’s history of progressive policies and believes her city’s voters would support a housing levy.
“There is an incredible need right now, and I feel there is a lot of community support for solutions for housing,” said Bateman, citing the upcoming Drexel House and Billy Frank Jr. Place projects that will serve the homeless, including veterans. “We’ve seen some promising projects come to fruition, but more work definitely needs to be done.”
A work session between the Home Fund group and city councils from Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater will take place 5 p.m. July 12 at Olympia City Hall.