Many struggle with housing security during emergencies like a serious illness, a death in the family or a temporary job loss.
When Jodah Long locked the door to his apartment where he had been living for 13 years, he was worried about his health. He’d been diagnosed with a serious blood infection, was in a lot of pain and was headed to the hospital. During the three-month hospital stay, he wasn’t able to work and communicated to his landlord that he couldn’t pay rent. He returned home to find an eviction notice from the sheriff on his door.
“As a person who doesn’t know much about tenant rights, I still don’t understand how anyone can be evicted for being sick,” Long says. “I never caused any problems, but my landlord wasn’t willing to work with me.”
What happened to Long isn’t an unusual occurrence throughout the Puget Sound region. For many low-income and middle-income renters, the combination of scarce resources and high rent means no flexibility when facing an emergency like a serious illness, a death in the family, or a temporary job loss. Until recently, Washington law allowed landlords to file evictions against tenants just three days after rent is due. Legislation signed by Governor Jay Inslee in May extended the requirement for pay-or-evict notices to 14 days and expanded other tenant protections.
The latest count of the homeless population in King County showed 11,199 people living on the streets, in cars or on encampments. Additionally, there’s a growing middle-income population — teachers, bus drivers, nurses, firefighters, police officers — who can’t afford to live in Seattle, Bellevue and other employment hubs where housing prices are skyrocketing.
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According to a report from Challenge Seattle on the region’s housing affordability crisis, home prices rose nearly 60% in the last decade, three times the national growth rate. At the same time, King County added jobs at twice the national rate and the region’s population grew by around 300,000. Today, housing prices are seven times the median income in King County, effectively excluding middle-income households from most King County ZIP codes. They are forced to either endure long commutes or simply move.
“These are members of our communities who provide valuable services to all of us,” says Jane Broom, Microsoft Philanthropies Director, who heads the Microsoft Affordable Housing Initiative. “Affordable housing is an issue that affects everyone.”
Microsoft is investing a total of $500 million toward a variety of projects designed to curb the housing crisis in the Puget Sound region, where the need is greatest from very low income households to those making up to $120,000 per year, just above King County’s average median income level.
That broad spectrum covers the chronically homeless to double-income families struggling to make ends meet. “Homelessness and affordable housing are pieces of the same complex issue requiring a comprehensive approach and plan for our region,” Broom says. “The challenges are significant and will require some risk-taking, policy change and community support to ensure housing exists across income levels. Our goal is that our investment will serve as a catalyst.”
Stop homelessness before it begins
A study produced by the Seattle Women’s Commission and King County Bar Association reported that 87% of people being evicted locally in 2018 had fallen behind on rent, like Long. In most cases, the evictions happened when rent was just one month overdue. In March 2019, United Way of King County and The King County Bar Association launched Home Base, an innovative program that disrupts the pipeline leading to homelessness. Long is one of nearly 300 tenants since March who have received free legal representation and one-time emergency funding to avoid eviction, and a case worker for ongoing support.
The first year of Home Base was funded with a $3 million grant from the Seattle Mariners, a Microsoft grant of $5 million and additional grants from nonprofits and individual philanthropists. The United Way aims to scale the program to $12 million by 2021.
“Communitywide support and involvement is key in creating and supporting long-term solutions to homelessness in our region, like Home Base,” says Sara Levin, Vice President, Community Services, United Way of King County. “Without everyone being aware of this crisis and a broad swath of people wanting to do something about it, there will be no political will to address it.”
Permanent, supportive housing first
“Homelessness is a complex issue and it won’t be solved with a cookie-cutter approach,” says Andrea Carnes, Deputy Director of Plymouth Housing, which serves the chronically homeless, single, low-income population in Seattle with permanent supportive housing. “Our clients need not just shelter but also the wraparound services that enable them to stay housed. A lot of them have medical and mental health care needs as well as job skills services. But we do need housing first.” A key step forward to address that need: Plymouth’s $75 Million PROOF Campaign launched earlier this year, which included a $5 million donation from Microsoft’s Affordable Housing Initiative.
Plymouth Housing residents typically need help with everything from setting up their new apartment, to money management, to obtaining subsidies for food. A huge need is access to mental health care, and health care so they have options aside from the emergency room. “We provide chore services, nurses on-site, help with physical and mental disabilities, money management and other daily life skills,” Carnes says.
Oliver, a Plymouth Housing tenant for the past 19 years, built a successful business doing yard work after serving in the Vietnam War. One health crisis in 1995 turned his world upside down. “I refractured my pelvis and couldn’t work so I lost everything,” says Oliver, who lived on the streets of Seattle for five years and still walks with a cane. “I’d go way out to find a perch to sleep on because they’d steal my pallets and boxes, and I wasn’t going to sleep on the ground. Sometimes, I’d walk the streets all night and then get to work the next day.”
Oliver moved to an apartment at one of Plymouth Housing’s buildings in Seattle in 2000. His case manager helped him find stability by providing personalized support and connecting him with critical resources, such as medical care. “It wasn’t easy; none of it’s easy living out there unless you just give up,” Oliver says. “But it’s the point of the longevity of living and maintaining a decent stride toward basic existence. Plymouth Housing always respects that in tenant supervision and responsibility. It provides [tenants] with a place to call their home, lay their head, be themselves.”
Plymouth’s results are impressive: 94% of tenants do not return to the streets. “We know permanent supportive housing is a compassionate and cost-effective answer to the homelessness problem,” Carnes says. “The problem is we don’t have enough of it.”
At Microsoft Philanthropies, we believe in a future where every person has the skills, knowledge, and opportunity to achieve more.