Comment: Lawmakers should take housing bond plan to voters

Bonds can fund the construction that can make housing affordable. But voters must make the call.

By April Sims and Cheryl O’Brien / For The Herald

There aren’t enough homes in our state. Housing affordability and availability is at a crisis level, whether you live in Seattle or Spokane, Redmond or Richland.

But there’s a solution on the table in Olympia that will help meet this crisis head on: Legislators can ask the voters to consider increasing our bonding capacity to finance construction of new housing across the state. It’s a serious call to action to address our housing needs, and legislators should greenlight it.

The problem is clear. People who work at grocery stores, hospitals and other essential jobs can’t find housing they can afford in the communities they serve. Realtors struggle every day with a shortage of homes in our communities for all the people who want to live here. Rising rents and mortgage costs exacerbate wealth gaps and directly contribute to the homelessness crisis. And our economy suffers as would-be employers are potentially driven from our state; for many communities, access to housing has become the top factor limiting businesses’ decisions to locate or expand operations locally.

That’s why a broad and growing coalition of more than 90 groups and organizations — from labor unions, business chambers, building trade groups, real estate associations, local and tribal governments and international businesses — have come together to support a plan for the state Legislature to ask voters whether the state should issue new bonds to finance a bold investment in building new housing. It’s a once-in-a-generation coalition, brought together by a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a different future for Washington.

The housing bonds referendum would authorize the state to issue bonds outside of Washington’s debt limit to raise at least $4 billion to build housing that working people can afford, expand mental health and addiction services for those who need it, and provide permanent supportive housing for people living outside. And because the money is raised by bonds, it doesn’t require new taxes to move forward.

The fundamental fact driving this crisis is that we don’t have enough housing, and not enough people can afford the housing we do have. As of July 2021, Washington had 3.25 million homes. By 2044, we will need more than 1 million additional homes to accommodate our state’s growing population. That means 45,900 homes — including state-funded affordable housing — will need to be built every year for the next 22 years. And that’s just the need for construction, not to mention the fact that the cost of living in Washington is rapidly outpacing wage growth, even in a state with a strong minimum wage and labor economy.

Without bold action, housing costs will continue to soar, affordable rental and homeownership opportunities will continue to dwindle, and our homelessness crisis will grow worse. With more than 13,000 people living outside and unsheltered across the state — an estimate that continues to move in the wrong direction — we have a moral imperative to act now. The decisions made in Olympia during this legislative session will define our communities and our state in the decade to come.

The housing bonds referendum is a bold opportunity to meet this challenge. And when approved by voters, it will create positive economic impacts that will ripple far beyond yields for bond holders. Building tens of thousands of new homes will inject demand and spending into Washington’s economy. Whether you’re a builder or an electrician, the owner of the coffee shop that builders and electricians stop at on their way to work, or live in their communities, we will all experience the benefits of thriving local economies boosted by new investments and new jobs. And when people don’t have to spend such a huge share of their incomes on keeping a roof over their heads, they have more money to spend at local businesses, which will in turn create additional consumer demand across this state, lifting the whole economy.

That’s not to say there is any one silver-bullet policy that will solve the entirety of the housing crisis. If we know anything, it’s that housing and homelessness is a multifaceted problem with a multitude of smart approaches and thoughtful investments needed, and the people working on those policies should continue to do so.

But there’s no doubt we need a plan that’s big enough and bold enough to disrupt the crisis we’re in and put us on a different trajectory. We’ve talked about the problem for long enough, and it’s time to meet the urgency of the moment with bold new strategies like sending this bonding proposal to the voters in 2023.

An unprecedented group of stakeholders support this unprecedented opportunity to meet this crisis head on. Legislators should act now to pass this measure so that voters have the chance to be heard.

April Sims is president of the Washington State Labor Council. Cheryl O’Brien is vice president of government affairs at Washington Realators and a Realtor with John L Scott.

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