Right now, more than 405,000 Washington households do not have a decent, safe and affordable place to live. More than 51,000 individuals...
Right now, more than 405,000 Washington households do not have a decent, safe and affordable place to live. More than 51,000 individuals are homeless and more than 50,000 households are on the waiting lists of public-housing authorities. In the nine largest agricultural counties in our state, the shortage of farmworker housing is so severe that farmworker families are forced to crowd into substandard units, sleep in their cars, or camp along the riverbanks during the harvest season.
Olympia lawmakers should capitalize on the opportunity created by the state’s $1.4 billion budget surplus and make a significant investment in affordable housing. This commitment would ensure that our communities benefit directly from the new revenue, now and for generations.
The budget surplus includes an unexpected $500 million in additional state revenue, according to recent projections from the Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council. The new money is, in large part, from dollars generated by the housing boom. The forecast council noted that nearly 30 percent of the half-billion-dollar increase comes from real estate excise tax payments, and that the housing boom “accounts for well over half of the total change when the indirect impact of the strong housing market on spending on real estate-related taxable sales is included.”
In other words, all those high-priced home sales, mortgage refinances and construction loans are pouring new dollars into the state’s budget.
At the same time, the wage necessary to afford a decent place to live is almost double the state’s minimum wage and far outpaces the median wage earned by working families.
According to the census, real wages have not kept up with inflation, while home prices and rents have consistently grown. A minimum-wage worker would have to work at least 79 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Washington state. The working families who drive this economy can’t afford a place to call home.
Policymakers in Olympia have responded to the new revenue with calls for “rainy-day funds” or “no new spending.” They are right that preparing for the future should be their primary concern, and a substantial deposit into the state’s rainy-day fund makes sense. It also makes sense for the Legislature to be deliberate about increases in the operating budget, since we can’t count on revenue increases every year.
But government can’t sit back and wait for trouble to come, instead of proactively facing our challenges. The Legislature should make a long-term investment in the affordable housing stock now, so that our children can live in a state where a family doesn’t have to work almost 80 hours a week to afford a decent and safe place to live.
The Legislature should use the surplus to:
• Ease the project backlog in Washington’s Housing Trust Fund, which supports the development of affordable housing by nonprofits, faith-based organizations and housing authorities for working families, homeless individuals and others left behind by the market. The state’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board recently recommended that at least $50 million of new revenues be dedicated to helping erase this backlog.
• Ensure that successful programs like “Energy Matchmakers” (helping working families improve their homes’ energy efficiency, thereby saving significantly on their heating bills) are fully funded.
• Increase the production of both seasonal and permanent farmworker housing so those in one of our state’s largest industries can have decent shelter for themselves and their families.
• Fully finance the Washington Families Fund, which matches public dollars with private philanthropy to help homeless families get their lives back together.
Investing in the affordable housing stock is not only good policy, it’s smart money. Last year, nonprofit housing development in King County alone generated $77 million in local income, 1,300 jobs and $9 million in tax revenue. Multiply that in 39 counties and the state would have an impressive return on its investment.
Affordable housing builds hope, saves lives and revitalizes communities. Lawmakers should not miss the opportunity to invest in this critical asset.
Hugh D. Spitzer a Seattle attorney, chairs the Washington State Affordable Housing Advisory Board. Mike Gempler of Yakima, is the executive director of the Washington Growers League, an association of growers, packers and processors.