Olympia voters should support Proposition 1’s sales tax on the Feb. 13 ballot to help address local homelessness.
The goal of this City Council-sponsored ballot measure is to build or renovate roughly 350 dwelling units in the next 10 years, according to co-leaders of the Home Fund campaign, City Council member Jessica Bateman and Phil Owen of SideWalk.
The proposed tax increase is slight, amounting to a penny on a $10 taxable purchase. It effectively would raise the combined state-and-local sales tax in Olympia to 8.9 percent, up from 8.8 percent today.
An estimated $2.3 million a year in new revenues would be generated and placed in a new City Home Fund that could be used primarily for housing, mental health services and facilities. Money would be disbursed to projects — subject to the City Council’s review — as grants. Any recipient groups would have to make the new housing available at affordable rates for at least 30 years.
There is no chance this tax measure — or any other single action by the city, charities and other allied nonprofit groups – will “solve” the problem of homelessness in Olympia or Thurston County. But the City Home Fund would be a major help in weaving a successful community response to homelessness and mental illness in Thurston County.
Along with the Providence St. Peter Foundation’s recently opened Capital Care Center in downtown Olympia and voter approval of an Olympia public safety tax last November, we are on the verge of seeing a more systematic response to the humanitarian crisis seen every day on our city streets.
The care center provides medical screenings and referrals to housing assistance and other services to the homeless people who crowd onto city sidewalks. And the public safety tax on property will soon pay for mobile mental health teams to respond to people in crisis, for more police foot patrols downtown and for operating the city’s community court.
The most likely tenants in the new units are the homeless, people with disabilities, the mentally ill and people with addictions who need stable shelter and other help or wrap-around services. The city would add about 1 1/2 new staffers with the money.
Tax watchdog Glen Morgan wrote a voter pamphlet statement against Prop. 1, arguing the plan won’t solve homelessness. In a meeting with the Olympian Editorial Board, Morgan said it is also not focused enough to actually change the lives of homeless individuals and addicts.
We appreciate that there are different approaches to homelessness and that Morgan is willing to ask hard questions. A tough-love approach has its place, but there is science behind putting people under a roof with oversight and services before getting them to sober up.
The Thurston Chamber, a business and commerce group, agrees the tax is needed. Its board of trustees recently voted to support Prop. 1.
“Taking a pro-position on the ballot measure is an important indicator of how the business community views this regional crisis. The lack of affordable housing and housing solutions for the most vulnerable hurts the entire community,” said David Schaffert, Thurston Chamber president and chief executive, in an announcement that the chamber’s trustees voted to back Prop. 1.
Schaffert said the proposal is also in line with a longer-range health-strategy map for Thurston County that was devised by the Thurston Thrives initiative.
Our community’s housing and homelessness problem is a crisis. It demands an immediate and coordinated response that amplifies efforts by other organizations — from Community Youth Services to Providence’s foundation, Salvation Army, InterfaithWorks and too many others to list.
This can happen under terms of the City Home Fund proposal. At least 60 percent of the Home Fund money would have to be used to build affordable dwelling units, mental health facilities, treatment facilities and related costs. Other funds could be used for evaluation, care or treatment.
Nonprofits like Community Youth Services or InterfaithWorks, for-profit groups and government agencies could qualify for grants to build new dwellings. The hope is that the grants are leveraged with other funds secured by the groups to also operate these facilities.
There will be many more questions for our community to answer if this passes. But we are trusting that Prop. 1’s limits on use of the money, oversight by the City Council, and a new citizen review panel can keep Olympia’s housing experiment on track.
Please vote yes for Proposition 1.