The global pandemic has impacted us all in unprecedented ways, but it has not impacted us all equally. Vulnerable groups in King County are experiencing a much greater impact from COVID-19, especially when they are experiencing housing instability or even homelessness.

“We live in an area with a severe shortage of affordable housing, which led to a homelessness crisis before the pandemic even arrived on our shores,” says Gordon McHenry Jr., CEO of United Way of King County. “We have not invested at the levels needed to help people living in cars, under bridges, in tents, or living one paycheck away from homelessness.”

Tony Mestres, president and CEO of Seattle Foundation, says, “the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the brokenness of our systems and existing inequities in our community. Black, Indigenous and people of color are more likely to contract and die of COVID … Families living in poverty struggle to pay rent, put food on the table, and get the basics they need to survive.”

Tony Mestres, Seattle Foundation
Tony Mestres, Seattle Foundation

This is strikingly true in King County, where Black and African American people make up 25% of the homeless population, despite being just 7% of the overall population. Similarly, Native Americans or Alaska Native people are 1% of the population, but 15% of the homeless population, and Latinx people comprise 10% of King County’s general population, but 15% of the homeless population.

The need for affordable homes is greater than ever. Even before COVID-19, King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force found that more than 124,000 county households are severely cost burdened, spending more than 50% of their income on housing.

Still, nonprofit, government, community and business leaders are working together on innovative and timely strategies to address a wide range of critical housing needs.

Shortly after the pandemic hit, King County quickly found shelter for more than 800 previously unhoused people by leasing hotel rooms in Bellevue, Seattle, Renton and SeaTac. Early findings from a study performed by the University of Washington and King County Department of Community and Human Services found the hotel rooms not only helped to slow the spread of COVID-19, they also bolstered the physical and mental health of the occupants.

“We have seen the transformative effect this has had on them — having a clean place to live, a bathroom, a place to put their possessions. We should not, cannot, let them simply go back to living on the street. We hope our local authorities will make this part of a permanent solution to our homelessness crisis,” says McHenry Jr.

Gordon McHenry Jr., United Way of King County
Gordon McHenry Jr., United Way of King County

Local organizations are also stepping up to grow the region’s insufficient supply of affordable housing. For example, the Redmond-based Together Center Project is planning to create 280 affordable housing units on top of its new collaboration space for 20 Eastside-serving nonprofits, many of which serve BIPOC, immigrant, and refugee communities. This coalition serves more than 30,000 people annually, and affordable housing has been at the forefront of their efforts. Microsoft invested $6.8 million to help develop the project as part of its Affordable Housing Initiative.

“We really want to create a livable, inclusive community,” says Kim Sarnecki, Together Center’s CEO. “I’m so excited about the opportunity for this to be a model with human services and affordable housing, one that will really help people stay housed and be supported in their journey. And we will not only have property managers on site, but also case managers. Just having compassionate resources to help people stay housed for the long term is an important endeavor for our communities.”

Thus far, due to Gov. Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium and the federal stimulus, many people have managed to stay in their homes and make their rental and mortgage payments. But McHenry Jr. says he worries about residents who might be accumulating “rental debt at unsustainable levels.”

In response, the United Way, City of Seattle and King County announced the relaunch of the Rent Assistance and Prevention Program in early December, a $41 million program to assist households that have been economically impacted by the coronavirus. This is in addition to the 9,000 households the United Way supported with rent payments from April to October of 2020.

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Community partners are also getting much-needed funding through different funding mechanisms, including the COVID-19 Response Fund, which is managed by Seattle Foundation. The Fund launched in early March with contributions from Microsoft, Amazon, Alaska Airlines, Starbucks and many others. Smaller gifts played a huge role as well, with more than 6,300 donors stepping up to contribute, which allowed the Foundation to raise over $36.5 million in a matter of months.

Over $20 million has already been granted to over 350 organizations working on a range of issues, including housing groups like African Community Housing & Development, Plymouth Housing and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

In addition to this short-term crisis response focused on unstably housed workers and families, Microsoft has also stepped in to help and support innovative efforts to build more permanent affordable housing in the region, including through the Evergreen Impact Housing Fund. The company announced that it would invest $65 million in affordable housing for the Puget Sound region, lowering rents for over 1,000 people as part of a broader $750 million commitment to address the region’s affordable housing crisis. For Mestres, this is all a sign of brighter horizons for affordable housing in King County.

“Together, we can reimagine our region after this crisis — not just bouncing back, but moving forward.”

McHenry Jr. agrees. “We live in a community that is compassionate, generous and responsive to calls for action; the exact support we need as we struggle to survive the pandemics of COVID-19 (health and economic) and renew our commitment to fight against racial injustice.”

At Microsoft, we believe in a future where every person has the skills, knowledge and opportunities to achieve more. We’re committed to empowering people, communities and organizations around the globe in our effort to ensure an inclusive economic recovery.