by Leo Brine
As a counter to their meek policy achievements in Olympia this year, Democrats loaded their capital and operating budgets with historic investments in housing and homelessness response—$829 million, nearly half of which will go to local governments and nonprofits to develop new shelter and permanent housing. Governor Jay Inslee estimates the state will add 3,890 new housing units or shelter beds with $413 million in funding from the Housing Trust Fund and appropriations for rapid capital acquisitions.
The rest of the money ($416 million) will go to things like rent, mortgage, and utility debt assistance. An Inslee-backed bill to create a new office inside the Department of Social and Health Services to address homeless encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, like freeway underpasses, failed, but the budget includes $52 million that will go to local governments for the same purpose, including $7 million to help prevent future encampments in places where encampments have been removed.
Democrats killed several pieces of their own progressive housing legislation that would have created incentives for denser housing development after those bills were watered down by amendments from Republicans and other Democrats. In the house, they killed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) denser housing bill (HB 1782) at the first legislative cutoff of the session. At the next cutoff, senate Democrats killed Rep. Sharon Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) accessory dwelling unit legalization bill (HB 1660).
And on the final night of the session, the clock ran out on the year’s last hope for housing policy reform—a bill sponsored by Rep. Davina Duerr (D-1, Bothell) bill (HB 1099) that would have required cities to adjust their growth plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled. The bill, which would have updated the state’s Growth Management Act to respond urgently to climate change, was a top priority for the environmental advocacy group Futurewise.
Inslee’s senior adviser for housing, Jim Baumgart, said Inslee wants to move away from “mats on a floor,” and “cots in a big open room” shelter model and toward a system where people get their own space. “If we can, the goal is always to get people into permanent housing. The way to end homelessness is to get people into permanent housing,” Baumgart said.
“It’s really hard to know what projects will come in and what those proposals will be for. Thomas said. “Our hope is the vast majority of the funds are for permanent housing solutions.”
Unfortunately, it’s not clear how much permanent housing the state will add with the Democrats’ investments. According to Baumgart, “housing units” refers to “all non-congregate housing options,” from shelters and transitional housing to permanent housing, supportive and otherwise.
Baumgart said it’s “really hard to estimate” that figure because of the rising cost of building materials and they don’t know which projects local governments and nonprofits will submit for grant funding.
Michele Thomas, from the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance, is also trying to figure out how much permanent housing the budget creates, but says she won’t know for a while. She said the grants in the budget can go to a variety of projects that deal with homelessness, not just permanent housing.
“It’s really hard to know what projects will come in and what those proposals will be for,” Thomas said. “Our hope is the vast majority of the funds are for permanent housing solutions.”
The bulk of the grants come from a $300 million allocation for rapid capital acquisitions in the Democrats’ capital budget. The Department of Commerce can give out $207 million of that in the form of grants to organizations that want to acquire property that they will convert into some form of housing or shelter. Organizations can also apply for grants that will support the cost of renovations to existing properties.
Inslee’s original proposal spent around $815 million on housing and would have created 2,600 new permanent housing units, according to documents from the Office of Financial Management. The total spending makes up less than 1.5 percent of the $64 billion budget.