January 8, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 2

Community & Editorial

Even with a divided legislature, officials in Olympia can come together to make housing a statewide

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On Jan.13, legislators will take their seats in the state capitol for another legislative session. Unlike the marathon session of 2013, when they reached a budget deal near the end of June, this year they’re likely to end after a short and fast 60 days.

The state legislature is an inherently political place, but perhaps never more so than now. The House is controlled by Democrats. The Senate technically has more Democrats than Republicans. However, two Democratic Senators joined the Republican caucus last year to create the “Majority Coalition Caucus,” which is now in charge.

So with just 60 days in session, a tough political landscape, and lawmakers looking toward the 2014 election, is it possible to make progress on ending homelessness? Absolutely!

Here are some things legislators can get done in the next two months:

• Improve educational outcomes by making sure children have homes. For the more than 27,000 homeless children in Washington, homelessness means more than losing a place to live. It also means long-term impacts on their academic outcomes. Homeless students have more absences, repeat grades more frequently and are more likely to need special assistance. One recent study reported that children living with their families in subsidized housing were more likely to be proficient on standardized math tests than their homeless peers. This suggests that a stable and healthy home can assist formerly homeless young people in improving their academic outcomes. Children deserve a chance to succeed in school and in life, which all begins with their families being able to afford a decent place to live. By investing in affordable homes, the legislature will be investing in education.

• Achieve better health outcomes for Washington residents by getting people the housing and services they need. The Washington State Health Care Authority estimates that over the next several years, Washington could potentially enroll an additional 325,000 people in the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Most people who are homeless, and many subsidized housing tenants, are now eligible.

Access to a doctor is part of staying healthy. But increasingly, the health care community is recognizing how the conditions and environments that people live in greatly impact health. The legislature embraced Medicaid expansion last year. To achieve the health outcomes they hope to see, they should ensure people also have healthy homes and access to the services they need to thrive.

• Remove barriers to rental housing. In the search for a home, tenants usually apply to multiple rental housing units, which means paying for multiple tenant screening reports. Rejection is more likely in a tight rental market or for renters with limited rental history. So, these folks have to reapply elsewhere and pay for yet another report — even though such reports contain essentially the same information. Each report costs $35 to $60. According to a survey conducted by Solid Ground, during a single housing search tenants spend on average total of $166 for screening reports. Creating a secure, portable screening report is a simple step the legislature can take to reduce this unnecessary barrier to rental housing.

• Protect services that prevent and end homelessness. Modest filing fees on real estate documents make up more than half of the funding for homeless services in Washington and pay for things such as rental assistance and emergency shelters. A portion of the fees collected are set to expire in 2015, when Washington was originally expected to have reduced homelessness by half. We’re making progress. Homelessness has declined, thanks in large part to just the kind of help these services provide. But we’re nowhere near ending homelessness, and a reduction in help would send us in the wrong direction. Likewise, the Housing and Essential Needs program, which provides a small housing grant for some unable to work due to sickness or a disability, helps people stay off the streets and should be maintained. Legislators should protect these services.

Regardless of politics, we ought to agree that everyone should have the opportunity to live in a safe, healthy, affordable home. These are sensible steps that will move our state toward that goal. We’ll be in Olympia every one of the 60 days of this legislative session working on these goals. You can help by making sure that your legislators know you are paying attention and want to see progress. Register now for Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day in Olympia, which is Jan. 28. And sign up for updates at wliha.org to find out about the other ways you can take action.

Rachael Myers is the executive director at Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

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