By Deborah Beckwin
Last January, I moved to Seattle from Florida and was disheartened by the lack of affordable housing—not only for me, but for unhoused folks.
A couple of weeks after my arrival, I was welcomed with about a foot of snow—an example of the kind of extreme weather that’s becoming more common in our region due to climate change. Although this was a temporary inconvenience and a little bit of fun for most of us, our unhoused neighbors were dealing with colder temps and a lot of snow, wet, and cold.
These two issues, climate change and a lack of affordable housing, collide and create unlivable conditions for everyone, but especially those experiencing homelessness.
As I started to venture out into Seattle, I started to see the tents and the RVs, as well as the places where unhoused folks called home, like downtown, SoDo, Ballard, and Belltown. As someone who has worked as a social worker with people who have a history of homelessness and severe mental health issues, I found it a very bewildering experience. Seattle is so wealthy and progressive. How is this happening? Why is it continuing to happen?
And then, a few months later, there was record heat in late June and wildfires. Choking smoke kept me indoors and had me purchasing an air filtration system. I was lucky to even have air conditioning.
But other people were not so lucky. Other people died—at least 13 people due to heat exposure. Our unhoused neighbors took the brunt of those unseasonably hot and smoky days.
And then, there was the recent deep freeze which brought Christmas snow and ice that didn’t melt for a week. Then the snow melted and there was yet another atmospheric river, bringing down inches of rain, causing flooding.
House Bill 1099, which came close to passing last year, would require local governments to address the impacts of climate change in their comprehensive plans by reducing vehicle miles traveled and cutting greenhouse gas emissions—offering local governments an array of options to help stem the tide of climate change.
You can look at all this and feel helpless and demoralized. It can be scary and overwhelming. But there is so much we can do to tackle our current climate emergency and to make sure that everyone is in safe and affordable housing.
One immediate thing we can do, right now, is support two pending bills in the Washington state legislature. We have a unique opportunity to shape the next 10 years and beyond and create a more equitable city and state by updating Washington’s Growth Management Act, which limits sprawl beyond city boundaries.
So let’s start with what’s already been accomplished.
Legislators passed HB 1220 in 2021, forging a way for creating more equitable housing by dismantling the racist and income-based discriminatory state housing policies that have caused people to become displaced, including our unhoused neighbors. The new law prohibits cities from banning shelter and housing for people experiencing homelessness and encourages the development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), such as backyard cottages, in cities. It also requires cities with comprehensive plans, such as Seattle, to plan for more affordable housing for people at all income levels, establish anti-displacement policies, and address discriminatory and exclusionary housing rules and regulations.
But the bill was passed without funding for local governments to actually implement these important policies and transform the goals of this bill into reality. It is also vital that the legislature provide funding for local community-based organizations to be involved in the implementation process, so the solutions contained in this bill actually come from community need and experience.
The sooner we fund this bill, the sooner we can equip governments to make equitable housing a reality for years to come. Supporters can contact their legislators and encourage them to allocate funding to turn the goals of this critical legislation into a reality.
Another bill, HB1099, focuses on making sure that Washington cities and states are preparing for our new normal: life under a climate emergency. The bill, which came close to passing last year, would require local governments to address the impacts of climate change in their comprehensive plans by reducing vehicle miles traveled and cutting greenhouse gas emissions—offering local governments an array of options to help stem the tide of climate change.
Seattle is currently rewriting its comprehensive plan, the overall blueprint for development in the region. This major update happens once a decade, so the time for urgent action on both these bills is now. The plans we make today can affect us and future Washingtonians for many years to come.
Washington cannot wait another ten years for decisive action on equitable housing and climate change action. We know that our legislature already cares for the environment—especially since HB 1099 has already passed the house, and is now in the senate. Now it’s time to pass these two critical bills.
Deborah Beckwin is a content strategist and copywriter in Seattle. In the past, she has worked with people who have had a history of homelessness and severe mental health and substance abuse issues as a social worker in Chicago, IL, and has been a project manager supporting mental health outcomes research at Northwestern University.