Inslee wants the legislature to focus on housing for low-income Washingtonians

Greg Kim/The Seattle Times

Governor Jay Inslee announced Wednesday that he wants the state to focus on policies that will add new housing in the next legislative session.

Last year, Washington state poured hundreds of millions of dollars into homelessness and housing, largely through a one-time infusion of federal pandemic relief funds. Much of the state’s focus was on increasing temporary shelter units and keeping people living outside of state rights-of-way, such as near highways.

This year, Inslee said he wants to see policies that prevent low-income people from being deprived of available housing and becoming homeless.

“Fundamentally, we need more housing in Washington state,” Inslee said at a press conference at a Seattle hotel that was turned into a homeless shelter in part with public funds.

Inslee said the state is already addressing homelessness in several ways, adding mental health treatment capacity, substance use disorder treatment programs and shelter units. Most importantly, he said, 76,000 homes need to be added statewide at all income levels to meet current housing demand.

He said changing zoning laws or tax incentives for home sales could help fill that gap.

He proposed requiring that a certain percentage of housing units near transit stations be low-income; streamlining the permitting process to make it easier and faster to develop new housing, which he says could ultimately reduce housing costs; and a tax exemption for people selling their homes to first-time buyers.

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the state should prioritize increasing housing at the lowest income level rather than pursuing policies that affect housing prices. higher up the income scale.

Last spring, the governor signed a supplementary budget that included more than $800 million to address homelessness. More than two-thirds of that money came from one-time federal pandemic relief funding that Inslee says the state may not be able to match, though it will seek to increase the amount of spending for the homeless from the state budget.

The state is still spending some of last year’s funds. Over $330 million has been allocated to acquire existing properties and buildings. It was estimated that this could buy 2,460 units of housing or shelter. Currently, the state says 830, or about a third, of these units have been acquired and another 1,000 units are on the way within the next six months. More than a third of the acquired units are in King County.

Increasing the capacity of homeless shelters took years, said state Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, but with the state’s willingness to buy turnkey buildings like hotels and converting them into safe houses, she says, “it takes weeks, and it makes all the difference.”

Inslee said the state has faced challenges in bringing new housing units to residents who oppose the establishment of new homeless services in their communities. But he said there are many success stories where community members end up adopting the facilities.

King County and Seattle have also struggled to open new shelters due to a shortage of people willing to work in typically low-paying and often traumatic jobs.

The governor also touted the state’s Right of Ways initiative, an effort to relocate people living near highways, bridges and railroads.

The approach in most of these encampment moves has been similar to that used at Seattle’s Woodland Park, where outreach workers spend weeks connecting with the people who live there and connecting them to hotels or tiny shelters they are more likely to accept.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority was involved in four of those encampment moves and said 113 of the 116 people living in the encampments moved indoors, mostly to temporary shelters with a handful in permanent housing. In these cases, the authority calls them “encampment resolutions” rather than “displacements” or “sweeps”.

“When we say we’ve solved an encampment, that means we can say everyone’s in,” said authority CEO Marc Dones, who praised the teamwork between the state, authority and other partners.