New state housing dollars a ‘drop in the bucket’ compared to need

The pace of home construction has trailed demand for years, and advocates worry high rents and evictions will drive up homelessness.

By: - July 31, 2023 5:00 am
A low angle photo of an unfinished four-story apartment building, showing exposed plywood and other lumber

(Dan Reynolds Photography via Getty Images)

Despite record investments in housing this year, the state must continue pumping more money toward affordable housing and rent stabilization to curb homelessness in Washington, advocates told lawmakers Wednesday. 

At a state Senate Housing committee meeting in Vancouver, lawmakers heard from state and local leaders about what else is needed to address the housing and homelessness crisis. 

“We’ve made important steps, but there’s a lot more to go,” said Tedd Kelleher, Department of Commerce Housing Division policy director. 

The Department of Commerce estimates Washington will need more than one million new homes in the next 20 years, half of which must be affordable. Current housing construction is not on pace to meet that growth, Kelleher said. 

Washington would need at least 55,000 new homes built annually to meet the need. But since the 2008 recession, Kelleher said home construction in the state has lagged demand and, over the last year, the number of housing units permitted statewide has been dropping. 

The Legislature this year set aside more than $1.6 billion to try to increase the supply of housing to meet Commerce’s estimates, including $400 million over the next two years for the Housing Trust Fund, which funds affordable housing projects throughout the state. 

Lawmakers also directed money to various homelessness response initiatives, assisting landlords and youth shelters. 

“Even though these are historic levels of investments, they’re still kind of a drop in the bucket,” Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, said.

Kelleher didn’t offer a figure for exactly how much money the Legislature would need to invest in the coming years to meet the department’s housing-need estimates, but he said lawmakers will have to increase spending on housing as well as change land use regulations to do so.

High rents and evictions

Local Clark County leaders on Wednesday blamed rising rents and evictions for driving homelessness.

“If we don’t stop rents from increasing, those experiencing homelessness will drastically increase,” said Sesany Fennie-Jones, executive director of the Clark County-based Council for the Homeless. 

According to the Washington State Apartment Market Report from the University of Washington, the average rent in Washington earlier this year was $1,826 per month. Kelleher said it remains high because Washington has a high average income compared to other states.

Without pandemic-era protections, many people in Clark County are seeing “excessive rent increases and evictions,” said Laura Ellsworth, strategic partnerships and advocacy manager at the Council for the Homeless. 

Clark County sees some of the state’s highest eviction rates. Almost 11% of Washington’s evictions are in the county, even though it only makes up about 6% of the state’s population. 

Bills to protect tenants from sharp rent hikes failed to pass the Legislature this year, 

Fennie-Jones said the state and local communities must work together to solve the crisis. Solving homelessness requires “true systemic change” that balances the rights of tenants, landlords, homeowners and builders, she said.

‘Brutal’ housing market

The push for more affordable housing and stronger renter protections here in Washington follows a similar call from national leaders.

New data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows sheltered homelessness decreased by 17% in 2021 compared to 2019. Family homelessness also decreased by 25% during that time. The notable thing about that time period: Pandemic-era assistance and eviction prevention programs helped keep people in their homes. Now, as those initiatives fade, advocates worry.

Renters with the lowest incomes are entering a “brutal” housing market with “skyrocketing rents” and increased costs for food, gas and other necessities, Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said during a press briefing this week. 

“Unless policymakers at all levels prioritize tenant protections and make homes available for people at the lowest income, homelessness will increase,” Yentel said.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.