By June Robinson
Homelessness in Snohomish County has been in the news recently. On Jan. 26, volunteers spread throughout our county to identify and count our neighbors who were homeless. The results of this 2012 Point In Time Count revealed a higher number of people experiencing homelessness this year, compared to last year. Similarly, reports from local school districts indicate a growing number of students who are homeless and trying to get an education.
While it is not surprising that more and more of our neighbors are unable to keep a roof over their heads during the current economic downturn, it is distressing to consider the individual and collective toll this has in our community.
Everyone should have the opportunity to live in a safe, healthy, affordable home. It is nearly impossible to achieve your potential in life if every day is a struggle to find a place to sleep at night. The whole community loses when the contributions of each member cannot be realized.
This is stated personally by a man who participated in the recent homeless count, and who has been living along the Skykomish River for four years. In his words, “I have been homeless for over four years now … I am goal-oriented. To try to achieve goals is difficult at this time. I am trying to have a plan and schedule to live by daily. I cannot be successful in reaching goals when I have no stability or security.”
The reasons for homelessness are diverse and complex. However, one underlying factor contributes to homelessness more than any other: the lack of housing that is affordable to people of all incomes.
Unlike home prices, which have been dropping, rents in Snohomish County have increased in the past year, taking a home even further out of reach for people whose earnings have declined, or remained constant. The Washington State Center for Real Estate Research reports that the average monthly rent in Snohomish County was $871 in September 2010 and had increased to $922 in September 2011. This increase is due to higher demand for rental housing as more and more people are choosing to rent rather than purchase a home since the economic downturn began a few years ago.
At the same time, the supply of rental housing has not increased in recent years and the combination of factors has resulted in higher rents and lower vacancy rates. A recently published study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition titled “The Shrinking Supply of Affordable Housing” shows that this phenomenon is happening nationwide. In Washington state, they found that for every 100 households that earn less than $43,000 per year (50 percent of the area’s median income), there are 52 rental homes that are affordable and available to those households.
It should be possible for working people to afford housing and still have enough money for the basics like groceries and gas and childcare, yet for many in our community this is not possible. Consider a single parent of two children who is working full-time in an entry-level position at a local manufacturing facility earning $15 an hour. This parent brings home roughly $2,300 per month. If $900 of that is going to pay rent, there is $1,400 left each month to pay for child care — which can easily cost over $1,000 per month — utilities, groceries, gas, clothes, medical care, school supplies and everything else the family needs to meet their needs. It’s easy to see that the math just doesn’t work. The cost of housing is consuming too large a portion of the family’s monthly income.
Without action to address this situation, more and more of our neighbors will become homeless. More and more children will be sitting in classrooms trying to learn after having spent the previous night trying to sleep in the back seat of their parent’s car. More and more workers will be washing up in the employees’ restroom before starting their shift because they, too, slept in their car or on a friend’s living room floor the night before.
The solution requires all of us to act as neighbors, family members, people of faith, and citizens. Homelessness is a complex problem affecting the overall well-being of our community and requiring a multi-faceted response. And while our local community needs to leverage federal and state resources that are directed to housing and homelessness, it is essential that we coordinate a local response to homelessness and the affordable housing crisis.
Homes that are safe and affordable are the building blocks of any community. They provide the foundation from which individuals, families and neighborhoods flourish. We cannot walk away from the issue of homelessness thinking that someone else will solve it, because it affects all of us.
Many believe that the federal government should solve our housing crisis, yet the fact is that federal resources for increasing the number of affordable homes have been shrinking rapidly. And, in today’s political climate, it is unlikely that we will see a significant shift in this trend anytime soon.
We are fortunate to have two effective and creative housing authorities in Snohomish County, the Housing Authority of Snohomish County (HASCO) and the Everett Housing Authority, which depend on federal funding to provide housing for thousands of our neighbors who are elderly, live with disabilities that prevent them from working, or who have very low incomes. However, their federal funding is very constrained and is decreasing while the need for affordable housing in our community is growing.
Evidence of this can been seen in data from the Everett Housing Authority, which recently opened the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers (housing vouchers that can be used to help pay rent in private market rentals) for one week in October 2011. In that one week, the Housing Authority received more than 4,100 applications. This is in contrast to the last time the waiting list was opened for one week in 2006, when they received approximately 1,500 applications. Without new funding, it will take many years to address the housing needs of the people who submitted applications in October.
Over the last decade Washington state has become a partner to local communities in addressing housing needs and homelessness, and many Snohomish County communities have benefitted from state funding to build, maintain and operate housing that is affordable to people with low incomes.
Unfortunately, the 2011 Legislature dramatically reduced funding for the development of additional affordable housing. We have an opportunity now in the current legislative session to see funds directed to construction of affordable housing as a part of the capital bonds jobs package that the Legislature is considering. Housing that is affordable for workers to live in is an essential part of the infrastructure of any community, just as roads, bridges and schools are, and needs to be given a significant allocation of $100 million within that jobs package.
Our cities also have an important role to play in solving the affordable housing crisis. Every city in Snohomish County is affected by homelessness, even though it seems invisible in some places. The annual Point in Time Count located people who are homeless in every city in the county.
Cities are important partners in welcoming the development of homes that are affordable to people with low incomes. Many nonprofit organizations in Snohomish County are working hard to develop affordable homes and provide the necessary support to people to help them overcome the barriers they are facing that resulted in homelessness. Each of these nonprofit organizations needs the support of local communities and neighborhoods to be able to do their work.
A wonderful living example of a local solution is Broadway Plaza Apartments in Everett. These two buildings are home to senior citizens and adults who are living with disabilities. Rents are affordable to people with very low incomes. This community asset was constructed with the support of the citizens of Everett who in 1982, and again in 1989, approved bond sales to build the Broadway Plaza East and West, respectively.
The people of Snohomish County have a rich history of responding to local needs with local solutions. Now is the time for more local solutions to homelessness in our communities. We have many assets to draw on to craft these solutions. A collective vision and a common will to carry out the vision is needed before more of our neighbors are forced to live in their cars or hide from the police in tents in the woods.
About the author
June Robinson is executive director of the Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County, a coalition of organizations and individuals concerned about affordable housing in Snohomish County. For more information, visit www.housingsnohomish.org.