From the Field: Washington State Budget Takes Small Steps on Homelessness, Much More Needed

Washington affordable housing advocates are encouraged by commitments to address youth homelessness in the supplemental capital and operating budgets passed by the state legislature before adjournment on March 30. These investments, however, fall far short of what advocates were hoping to see state leaders include in the final budget. The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (Housing Alliance), an NLIHC state coalition partner, is already focusing on next year’s budget battle by developing advocacy skills throughout their network with a Board Advocacy Project, an Emerging Advocates Program, and an advocacy capacity-building track at their upcoming annual conference.

As homelessness continues to increase rapidly throughout Washington, both King County and the City of Seattle have declared states of emergency on homelessness (see Memo, 11/9/15), while the City of Vancouver has declared an affordable housing state of emergency. With intense pressure on communities to find new resources for housing, advocates expected more investments in the state budget. The final budget bill constitutes a compromise between the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate. The Housing Alliance was very supportive of the original House budget and an alternative proposal in the Senate that would have tapped the state’s Rainy Day Fund to address homelessness.

The positives in the final state budget primarily address youth homelessness: $2 million is included to fund the “Homeless Student Stability Act,” H.B. 1682. This $2 million will fund liaison positions in schools that do not have sufficient federal funding through the McKinney-Vento programs. H.B. 1682 aims to reduce the caseloads of liaison officers so that they can provide more meaningful interventions for students whose families are in housing crisis. In addition to increasing staff support, H.B. 1682 creates a grant program for up to 15 school districts to provide rent vouchers, rapid rehousing services, or other forms of direct assistance. 

The budget bill allocates $1.028 million for “HOPE Beds” for homeless youth. HOPE Beds provide immediate emergency shelter to adolescents who are living on the streets. The budget also provides $800,000 for Street Youth Services to provide caseworkers who will operate at the street level to engage with homeless youth and make them aware of resources they might access for safe housing and supportive services. The funding provided for all three programs to address youth homelessness is mostly a re-appropriation of other state funds and does not represent a commitment of new resources.

Efforts to end discrimination against tenants using subsidies like Housing Choice Vouchers were not successful, but the final capital budget did provide funding for an incentive program to encourage landlords to rent to tenants using subsidies. The program is modeled after a similar, successful initiative in Oregon in which the state compensates landlords renting homes to voucher holders for damages to apartments beyond what would be considered normal wear and tear. The program is intended to assuage the generally baseless fears of landlords that tenants who use housing subsidies are more likely to cause costly property damage.

The Housing Alliance had strongly supported the House-approved budget bill that included $37.5 million for affordable housing and supportive services and the “Bring Washington Home Act,” which would have generated $300 million for affordable housing and homelessness services. According to the Housing Alliance, these bills were never given serious consideration in the Senate beyond a perfunctory hearing.

Beyond the budget battle, the Housing Alliance was successful in securing a victory for tenants searching for new housing. Governor Jay Inslee signed the “Fair Tenant Screening and Eviction Reporting Act,” S.B. 6413, on March 29. The new law creates a tool to ensure that tenant screening reports do not include records of eviction cases that were decided in a tenant’s favor or were dismissed. Previously, tenants commonly lost out on rental homes based on eviction proceedings that did not result in eviction actions. The new law also furthers statewide fair tenant screening practices by requiring landlords to disclose whether they will accept reusable tenant screening reports that are purchased by tenants through a consumer reporting agency. Landlords often charge tenant screening fees, so the portable reports can save tenants hundreds of dollars when conducting housing searches. S.B. 6413 passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support in both chambers of the legislature. This rare consensus among lawmakers was due to a compromise struck by Senator Mark Mullet (D), who included a provision in his bill that gave landlords an additional seven days to postmark security deposit returns. The legal standard is now 21 days, up from fourteen.

To achieve better results in the next legislative session, the Housing Alliance continues to cultivate new leaders with the skills they need to advocate for better state budget. Their Emerging Advocates Program teaches individuals effective storytelling, voter engagement, using data, and promoting issues through social media. The Housing Alliance also works with their member organizations to engage their respective Boards of Directors to participate more directly in advocacy. The Board Advocacy Project engages board members who often have little experience in legislative advocacy and gives them the tools to participate in policy discussions on homelessness and housing. The Board Advocacy Project is one of many similar efforts nationwide that are supported by the Stand for Your Mission campaign, which provides tools and resources for nonprofit organizations working to expand advocacy skills of board members.

 “Addressing homelessness and our state’s affordable housing crisis with expanded state commitment has never been more urgent, and we need bold action from leaders at the state level,” said Housing Alliance Executive Director Rachael Myers. “We are committed to seeing that more advocates participate next year, and these issues are at the forefront of the debate in state elections.”

For more information about housing advocacy efforts in Washington, contact Rachael Myers at rachael@wliha.org.     

To read more about the Emerging Advocates Program, go to: http://wliha.org/EAP  

To read more about the Board Advocacy Project, go to: http://bit.ly/1MNtnS6 

To read more about the Stand for Your Mission campaign, go to: http://standforyourmission.org/