Comment: Housing need too great not to approve county tax

To address a dire lack of affordable housing, the county should adopt a modest sales tax increase.

By Mark Smith, Mary Anne Dillon and Fred Safstrom / For The Herald

3,841: This is the pre-covid number of school age children in Snohomish County experiencing homelessness. No one chooses homelessness, least of all these children. And yet there are children without a safe, secure place to sleep tonight in every one of Snohomish County’s school districts.

38,601: That’s the most recent Census Bureau count of low-income Snohomish County families who pay more than 50 percent of their total household income just for housing. These families pay this much not as a choice, but because lower rents are simply not available. These are families, individuals, veterans, and seniors, who struggle with the reality that any interruption of income or unexpected expense may well result in their homelessness.

We hope these numbers alarm you. They certainly alarm us. And as housing costs continue to skyrocket, the number of families, children and adults facing homelessness will continue to increase.

On Dec. 15, the Snohomish County Council has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build more affordable housing and break this vicious cycle that forces our neighbors onto the street.

Collectively, our organizations provide services to those struggling to make ends meet. We provide pathways to meaningful employment, school supplies for children, food banks, counseling and mental health services.

We are also able to provide some housing for people like Hilary. She, her husband, and their two children owned their own home in Everett for more than 13 years until hardship led to foreclosure. Though homelessness devastated her family for 18 long months, she persisted until she secured affordable housing. Housing stability was the foundation she needed to pursue an internship and community college, through which she gained a promising career in landscaping and a deep feeling of pride and newfound confidence.

We provide safe housing for survivors of abuse. We house veterans who have fallen on hard times and the frail elderly who otherwise might be on the street. We house people who are homeless, those who are mentally ill, and families with children who need temporary help to get their lives back in order. But there simply isn’t enough public funding to meet the need.

Affordable housing is very difficult to build. Private, for-profit housing developers cannot build housing that is both profitable for their company and charge rents low enough for low-income households to afford. Non-profit organizations and public housing authorities are the only entities equipped to develop housing that is affordable to those living in poverty who cannot pay anywhere near market rate rent. We are only able to do this through public support joined with private donations. And this public funding begins with local funding that leverages other state and federal resources.

County Council Ordinance 21-098 will increase the sales tax by $0.01 (one penny) for every $10 of taxable purchases. Those pennies will add up to $23 million in Snohomish County annually. State law requires these funds to be spent on new permanent affordable housing, behavioral health facilities and related services. Even the most conservative estimates show this revenue doubling Snohomish County’s current rate of affordable home creation.

We all work with extremely low-income households and individuals experiencing homelessness. We have heard the criticism that a sales tax is regressive. However, extremely low-income households spend about 80 percent of their income in four categories: housing, food, transportation and medical care; none of which are subject to a local sales tax. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Census Bureau suggest this tax increase will cost a family of four in the lowest 20th percentile of income $5.90 per year. It will cost those in the 20th upper percentile (annual income of more than $250,000) $49 per year.

It is also important to note that we are not being presented with the choice of a sales tax vs. an income tax, or a sales tax vs. a property tax, or even a sales tax vs. a reprioritization of existing county general fund expenditures. The choice we are being given is a sales tax vs. doing nothing. Doing nothing will result in more households and children experiencing homelessness. Doing nothing will continue to increase costs to local municipal budgets for policing, emergency room visits and camp removals. Doing nothing is simply unacceptable. Indeed, with this county ordinance, we can secure an ounce of prevention that will be worth more than a pound of cure.

Now is the time to act. A secure home is the foundation upon which people build better lives and communities prosper. Helping people find their way home is a moral imperative that affirms our common humanity and common interest for our communities to be the best they can be.

The late South African President Nelson Mandela said “overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity but an act of social justice.” Adopting Ordinance 21-098 is simply the right thing to do.

Mark Smith is executive director for the Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County. Mary Anne Dillon is executive director of YWCA Snohomish County. Fred Safstrom is CEO of Housing Hope. They are joined in support of the proposal by Duane Leonard, executive director for the Housing Authority of Snohomish County; Joseph Nagel, director of Housing Services for Pioneer Human Services; Ashley Lommers Johnson, executive director for the Everett Housing Authority; and Jim Dean, executive director for Interfaith Family Shelter.

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