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Advocates target affordable housing shortage in Thurston County

Support staff worker Dave Wade of Olympia gives the new laminate floors a final cleaning as he helps prepare for the opening night of the Interfaith Works Overnight Emergency Shelter in the basement of the First Christian Church in downtown Olympia on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. The shelter features 42 beds for both men and women in separated dorms.
Support staff worker Dave Wade of Olympia gives the new laminate floors a final cleaning as he helps prepare for the opening night of the Interfaith Works Overnight Emergency Shelter in the basement of the First Christian Church in downtown Olympia on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. The shelter features 42 beds for both men and women in separated dorms. Staff file, 2014

Social service agencies that help Thurston County’s homeless and low-income households say a public investment in affordable housing can save lives and taxpayer money.

A nonprofit advocacy group called the Home Fund is pitching a housing levy to Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater. The hope is that city councils will put a housing-related ballot measure before their respective voters sometime this year.

If it comes to fruition, the proposed property tax would generate about $4.1 million a year for seven years. Home Fund representatives say the money can be leveraged as “seed money,” which could raise the value to $88 million during those seven years if only Olympia and Lacey approved a housing levy.

Service providers lack the resources to solve their most challenging cases, which can include a homeless family with disabled children, or someone suffering from mental illness who alternates between the streets and jail.

The levy’s primary goal would be to build 500 units of affordable housing. The money would also fund supportive services aimed at finding housing for those who need it most and keeping them in that housing.

Chris Lowell, executive director of the Housing Authority of Thurston County, said low-income households already have difficulty finding an affordable place to rent with their vouchers — sometimes forcing families to spend up to $1,500 a month for a three-bedroom apartment, for example, in addition to water and utilities.

Recent data on apartment trends back up that point. The average rent in Thurston County increased from $971 to $1,058 per month by the end of 2016. The countywide vacancy rate was 3.31 percent in the fourth quarter of 2016, with Olympia’s vacancy rate at 2.92 percent, according to the firm Apartment Insights of Seattle.

About 500 households are on the housing authority’s waiting list for rental assistance, Lowell said Tuesday during a study session with the Olympia City Council and other Home Fund representatives. An estimated 2,300 children are homeless in the county.

“Affordable housing for our most vulnerable population is just going out the door,” Lowell said. “We are desperately short of affordable housing in our community.”

No official action was taken at Tuesday’s study session. Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby said the housing levy matter will be discussed at the committee level this month before eventually returning to the full council for consideration.

Selby also reiterated a preference of other council members to find a countywide solution for a countywide issue. The mayor said she didn’t want to see Olympia “go it alone” and hoped to enlist help from other cities.

“These are their community members too,” she said.

Washington cities with voter-approved housing levies include Seattle, Bellingham and Vancouver. The Home Fund proposal would be similar to Bellingham’s levy, which passed with 56 percent approval in 2012. The levy charges 36 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value and generates about $3 million a year. The levy has led to the creation of 500 affordable housing units to serve more than 2,000 people.

One way to decide priority for affordable housing is through a vulnerability index — a key tool that has been pioneered locally by the 42-bed Interfaith Works Overnight Emergency Shelter in downtown Olympia. The vulnerability index helps the shelter assess hundreds of people to determine their risk of dying from health or substance abuse issues if they stay on the streets.

The shelter works with other service agencies, including SideWalk, which connects the homeless population with housing, case management and short-term rental assistance. More than 500 people have been housed by SideWalk, and program director Phil Owen said this Housing First model can help eliminate homelessness altogether.

At Tuesday’s study session, Owen noted how Utah generated headlines by using the Housing First model — in which housing comes first and services follow later — to reduce chronic homelessness by 91 percent.

A report by NPR describes how a pilot project in Salt Lake City provided permanent housing and supportive services for “17 of the hardest cases” who remained in that housing two years later. Research across the country has confirmed the cost of this housing is offset by reducing the financial strain on shelters, jails and emergency rooms.

“We can help save the public a lot of money,” Owen said. “Ending homelessness is possible.”

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869, @andyhobbs

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