EVERETT — Fred Safstrom has spent the past 25 years fighting for what he believes to be the No. 1 issue in Snohomish County: housing affordability.
After serving as CEO of Housing Hope for the past seven years, Safstrom announced last week he is retiring from the Everett nonprofit.
When it opened in 1987, Housing Hope set out to find housing solutions for an estimated 6,319 homeless people in Snohomish County at the time, according to Housing Hope’s website. Today, 1,184 people are considered homeless in Snohomish County.
Housing Hope has played a key part in getting people off the streets.
“But it really became apparent to me that that was not enough,” he said. “At one time, the end goal at Housing Hope was for people to remain stably housed. The end goal today is for them to escape poverty.”
So the nonprofit shifted its focus to include job training and creation in addition to providing stable housing.
“People used to believe homelessness was caused by bad choices. Now, people are realizing homelessness is caused by housing costing too much,” Safstrom said. “The real solution is for (households living in poverty) to acquire the tools to generate adequate earned income to escape that poverty and to avoid the negative outcomes.”
This shift in the public’s perception has influenced public policy.
In 2020, the Washington State Legislature passed House Bill 1590, allowing cities to use a 0.01% sales tax to fund the construction or acquisition of affordable housing and behavioral health-related facilities. The Snohomish County Council voted 3-2 in favor of the tax on Dec. 15, 2021, and the county began collecting revenue in April of this year.
Safstrom anticipates the bill will generate $23 million in its first year for affordable housing, as opposed to the currently available pool of $2.5 million.
“The scale of the change is just exponential, it’s so exciting,” Safstrom said. “I’ve been engaged in many successful (policy issues), but none greater than seeing the adoption of House Bill 1590.”
In addition to his advocacy role on the bill, Safstrom established Tomorrow’s Hope Child Development Center, one of only three centers in the state of Washington with a behavioral health License, and HopeWorks Station North, a net-zero energy job training hub and residential community. He also oversaw the completion of Housing Hope’s first development project, Twin Lakes Landing II.
“(Everett) is where I’ve invested my entire life,” Safstrom said. “Some people go off and travel, and that’s great, but I’ve dedicated my career to this community.”
Born and raised in Everett, Safstrom is the son of a local police officer and nurse. At age 13, he started working as a paper boy for The Daily Herald. He earned a degree in finance from Seattle University and spent the next 24 years at Cascade Banking in Everett. He joined the board of directors at Housing Hope in 1997, later becoming CEO in 2015.
“When people hear you work at a nonprofit they think of you like a volunteer, and this is a much different thing,” Safstrom laughed.
Although Snohomish County’s homeless census has declined greatly over the decades, the homeless population has risen 42.8% in the past seven years, from an all-time low of 829 people in 2015 to 1,184 today, according to the latest point-in-time numbers.
In that time, the median listing home price in Snohomish County has risen 116% from $346,000 in August 2015 to $750,000 in August 2022, according to realtor.com.
“Our cost of living, of housing, is so high here that parents are asking the question, ‘Well, how are my kids ever going to afford to buy a house here? How will they afford rent? How much income are they going to need to make in order to keep living here?” Safstrom said.
The stressors of rising housing rates can add pressure to other areas of people lives, creating more problems. Continuing to advocate for affordable housing, job training and help centers is imperative, according to Safstrom.
“At Housing Hope, it is no exaggeration to say we are making a transformational difference in people’s lives, and we’re doing it everyday. It has been tremendously rewarding — and challenging,” Safstrom said. “… I work alongside an absolutely marvelous group of people at Housing Hope. Together we have made a tremendous difference in this community.”
Safstrom will remain with Housing Hope until the next CEO takes over. Housing Hope expects the change to happen before the end of the year.