EVERETT — Anita Bailey tried to maintain a routine the years her family was homeless, living in their car.
Each morning, she drove her daughter Sammy to school. Then Bailey and her niece, Tawtyana, whom she raised, headed to the library or a park, where they read and talked.
The two grew close. Their bond strengthened when Bailey was diagnosed with cancer during the three years the family was without shelter.
As evening approached, the family would retreat to their nighttime spot, which for nearly a year was underneath the U.S. 2 trestle that links Everett with Lake Stevens. As cars rushed by overhead, Bailey would settle into the driver’s seat of their gray Ford Taurus, with the family dog, Ava, nestled on her. In the passenger seat, Tawtyana would curl up as Sammy stretched out in back. Anita’s husband, Tony, stayed with family to be near his job on the Eastside.
“We were lucky. At least we had a car,” Bailey said.
In 2008, years before the family became homeless, rising housing costs had pushed them out of Everett to Sultan. Even after finding a cheaper place, Bailey said housing costs still consumed more than half of their income.
The Baileys are among a growing number of low-income households in Snohomish County paying more than half of their income on rent and utilities. This group represents more than one in nine families in the county, according to a report published in April by the Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County.
These households have watched their wages stagnate as housing costs soar.
After moving to Sultan, car trouble led to Bailey’s husband losing his job at a Mukilteo manufacturing plant.
“We tried to keep up with the rent,” Anita Bailey said. “When you call 211 for help, they don’t help you unless you are actually living on the streets.”
They filtered through family and friends’ houses, and hotels until money ran out.
Without enough affordable housing in the county, these working class families are a lost job or an unexpected bill away from losing their homes. They often forgo medical care and food to pay rent, according to the report.
Regional growth boom
Skyrocketing home prices in the Seattle area are pushing many north to Snohomish County.
“Incredible population growth is coming in because of all the tech jobs in Seattle,” said Mark Smith, executive director and co-author of the Housing Consortium report.
This influx has made the county one of the fastest growing in the U.S., squeezing the housing and rental markets.
Between 2013 and 2016, rents jumped nearly 30 percent, according to the Housing Consortium. All the while, wages remained flat for many workers.
“We’ve got people making engineering wages competing for housing with people making McDonald’s wages,” said Jim Dean, executive director of the Interfaith Association for Northwest Washington.
Out of reach
Last year, a family needed to make more than $26 an hour to afford an average two-bedroom apartment in the county. That places that unit out of reach for households with two parents working full-time minimum wage jobs, according to the report.
Smith said the recession, which began in late 2007, slowed the construction of new homes because developers couldn’t get credit from banks. The recession was triggered partly by a large decline in home prices.
“Things have turned around, but now we are playing catch-up,” Smith said.
The report estimates more than 50,000 affordable units are needed today for families, like the Baileys, who are unable to find housing in the private market.
Anita Bailey’s last week of cancer treatment was overshadowed by the family’s imminent return to their car.
While the family was living at a car camp hosted by a church in Edmonds, Bailey was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October 2016, according to medical records. The blood cancer is expected to claim about 20,000 lives this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recently died from complications related to the disease.
Parishioners from the congregation paid for a hotel room during Bailey’s first week of treatment. A faith organization donated funds for the rest. As Bailey was finishing up her three rounds of chemo, the family was preparing to return to the homeless encampment.
“We had our car packed and were going to be on the streets that night,” Bailey recalled. “It’s wet outside, and here I am trying to recover. No protection from germs, or the cold.”
At the last minute, Interfaith Association’s Family Shelter called with a spot. The organization can get more than 2,000 messages in a three-month period from people looking for housing. But that day, they had a space for the Baileys.
‘It’s just bad luck, the way the dice rolled’
“There’s an assumption you’re homeless because you made poor choices,” said Pastor Tim Oleson, of the Edmonds Lutheran Church. “It’s just bad luck, the way the dice rolled.”
His church serves a weekly meal provided by members of the congregation. He hears from diners that there’s many free meals in the area, but what they really need is housing.
“The experts say people need help. It’s not, pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get out of homelessness yourself,” Oleson said. “Shelters are too few and far between.”
He said the affordable housing shortage is impacting all households. He’s watched pillars of the church, active volunteers, leave the area. Rising property taxes were driving out young families and seniors on fixed incomes.
With that in mind, the congregation made plans for a vacant parcel behind the church they long wanted to put to better use.
“Compass (Housing Alliance) wanted to try something different, and the church was ready to take a leap,” Oleson said.
With the goal of quickly and efficiently adding affordable housing, the groups turned to Blokable. The local housing startup aims to build affordable housing cheaper and faster than typical home construction by using prefab stackable units.
The first step in the plan was a model unit. Eventually, it’s supposed to be a 60 or 70 unit complex, but that’s years in the future.
Before the first unit was placed on its foundation, a retired special education teacher was inquiring how to live there.
Hal Zack, 68, moved to Lynnwood to be closer to family. He stopped working early due to an injury.
The rent on his one-bedroom apartment, he said, has more than doubled since he moved in nearly two decades ago, but his pension has not kept pace.
The $240 left after paying rent is consumed by utility payments, forcing him to rely on family to help pay for food and other expenses.
“I never thought I would need help from my brother to keep a small apartment,” Zack said. “I was assuming I could get a little house with a dog when I started teaching. I’ve had to let go of all of that.”
His precarious financial situation led him to refuse medical care after he took a tumble on one of his daily walks, he said. In the end, six stitches were needed in his cheek.
Zack has been searching for affordable housing since 2013. He wants to stay in Lynnwood, near his niece and nephew, and their children.
“I want to be around to watch them grow up,” Zack said. “I don’t want to be living in Kentucky.”
He is able to weather an upcoming rent hike, because his apartment complex cut his increase in half.
Looking for support
When Anna Hopkins lost her job as a security officer she was living paycheck to paycheck. To stay afloat she had to empty out her retirement account. After being evicted, Hopkins and her cat, Ichiro, moved into her car.
Every shelter she contacted told her there were no openings, Hopkins said.
A women’s transitional housing program, she recalled, had a six-month waiting list for the eligibility interview. And despite being approved for the state’s Housing and Essential Needs program, funding had run out before Hopkins was able to obtain a rental voucher.
The loss of that money was tough, said Holly Shelton, with Snohomish County’s Office of Community and Homeless Services, because that program had worked well for years.
Shelton said when the rental assistance program expanded, “there was not a corresponding increase in funding made available.”
“We feel this program is one step toward keeping people out of homelessness, but without proper funding, we aren’t able to help everyone who is approved,” Shelton wrote in an email.
Falling short for the future
To meet the present need, the Housing Consortium report estimates it would take a nearly 250 percent increase of affordable housing beyond the current inventory of about 20,500 units.
The present stock of affordable homes includes shelter beds and units where housing vouchers are being used.
If nothing changes and the current pace of building affordable housing continues, 5,500 units will be created over the next 10 years, Smith said.
In meetings with elected officials, the first question Smith is often asked is ‘What’s the No. 1 need in the affordable housing world?’
“It’s money,” Smith said. “It’s not the only need. But it is by far the largest.”
Affordable housing brought stability to the Baileys.
After three years of living apart, the family was reunited when they began living at a shelter in Everett. In March 2017, they moved into their own place in Arlington. The Baileys pay a portion of their income on rent, while the rest is subsidized.
The first night was spent unpacking, showering and finding solace in the quiet.
“With everyone having their own room we each have privacy,” Bailey said, “a huge part of that was being able to shut our own doors.”
Bailey’s youngest is attending the same high school she graduated from 29 years ago. Her husband commutes nearly six hours each day, taking three buses to a job at an assembly plant in Bellevue.
Bailey notices small differences in her girls. They argue less and everyone is getting better sleep.
“We no longer have to worry about strange people staring into the car windows,” Bailey said.