As a board member of the Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund—an organization started last year to hold lawmakers accountable to the housing needs of low-income people—I've been following the state budget conversations carefully.
I expected about what we saw from the Senate budget proposal—another budget that decimates some key safety net programs. What I didn’t expect was an announcement late Tuesday of a budget release at noon on Wednesday, and then a hearing three hours later. Clearly, providing an opportunity for public comment wasn’t much of a priority.
Now that we’ve seen their operating budget, we’re still left with a big question: what about funding for low-income housing? The State Housing Trust Fund is part of the capital budget and the Senate made no mention of the capital budget when they released their proposal. However, the operating budget doesn't offer much reason for optimism. (Last year's budget provided $118.9 million for the Housing Trust Fund.)
To be honest, I don’t care too much about building homes for their own sake. I care about the people who will live in those homes – many of whom are currently living in cars, tents, or other places that aren’t safe or healthy.
I care about the 27,000 homeless children in our public schools last year – including the 1,500 kindergartners. The Housing Trust Fund does more than provide desperately needed homes, it also leverages $5 for every $1 invested, making it a smart use of the state’s resources.
And it creates jobs. Building 1,000 apartment homes creates more than 1,200 jobs.
But even if all it did was provide homes for struggling families, that would be enough for me.
In our state, for every 100 families who are considered extremely low income (this varies by region, but averages about $21,000 for a family of three) there are just 27 homes that are both affordable to them (costing no more than 30 percent of household income) and available (not being rented by someone with a higher income.) Most of the homes created by the Housing Trust Fund serve people at this income level.
The Housing Trust Fund achieves other important goals, too. The homes it creates remain affordable for at least 40 years.
Historically, it has provided important funding for communities hit hardest by poverty and a lack of affordable housing: the farm workers who are the engine of our state’s agriculture industry but often live in abhorrent conditions, veterans who have served our country and come home only to experience homelessness, people with developmental disabilities who need supportive living in order to remain in their communities, and communities of color who are disproportionately impacted by poverty and continue to face housing discrimination.
And a small portion of the funds help low-income families purchase a first home, often helping them live near their workplace and build assets for their future.
The Housing Trust Fund is a critical component of our safety net that must be funded in the final budget. If the Senate doesn’t produce a capital budget that invests in homes, the House, which is releasing its budget next week, and the Governor should reject their proposal and make sure the final budget does. A $175 million investment would provide affordable homes for 4,300 low-income households.
If you agree, now is the time to tell your legislators to invest in in the Housing Trust Fund.
Jamila Johnson is a civil litigator in Seattle who serves as the Endorsement Chair for Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund and chairs the Housing and Homelessness sub-committee of the Seattle Women's Commission.