Each of us, no matter who we are, what we look like, or where we come from, needs a safe place to live. Our homes should be healthy, accessible, and affordable, no matter our income levels, so we can afford other basic needs like food, medicine, and childcare.
Affordable housing is more than a roof and four walls. It helps kids learn. It helps families stay together through hard times. It helps communities welcome immigrants and refugees. It helps people with disabilities and seniors to live independently. While many of us have stayed home for much of the last year, our homes have become more of a lifeline than ever.
Before the pandemic, housing was out of reach for many families and individuals in Washington. To afford a modest two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, a household needs a fulltime hourly wage of over $30 per hour. Almost two-thirds of the lowest income households in Washington are spending at least half their income for rent. Almost 23,000 people were identified experiencing homelessness during the point in time count in January 2020.
The affordable housing and homelessness crisis that existed prior to COVID-19 had a greater impact on people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ people, and women. Pacific Islander, Black, and Indigenous people are much more likely to experience homelessness than white people, and Black renters and women, especially Black and Latinx women, face eviction at disproportionately high rates. People with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ people also experience more housing instability. Largely due to redlining limiting homeownership opportunities that create generational wealth, for every $100 in wealth that the average white family holds, the average Black family has just $5.04.
COVID-19 and the related recession has had a devastating effect on low-wage workers and people of color. Since April of last year, the U.S. Census Bureau has tracked household experiences with the coronavirus pandemic, including data on housing security. Throughout most of 2020, there were over 120,000 people in households in Washington not caught up on rent at any given time. In mid-December, approximately 175,000 people lived in households who were not caught up on rent. The large majority were people of color and most were part of households with children. Many families who were caught up, reported relying on unsustainable means to meet their basic needs, including using credit cards, borrowing from friends and family, or selling assets. The Washington State Department of Commerce estimates, conservatively, that Washington needs $100 million per month to meet the need for rental assistance and prevent a wave of evictions and homelessness when the current moratorium on evictions ends.
We got here by making policy choices. Our state and country have failed to adequately invest in permanently affordable rental and homeownership opportunities, and in services for people who need assistance to remain housed. We have failed to undo the legacy of racism that created and sustains the racial wealth gap. We have not required employers to pay living wages. We have continued policy that favors landlords’ property rights at the expense of protections that keep tenants in their homes. Just as public policy decisions can create inequities, public policy choices can create a more equitable future.
In Washington, we have made big strides in housing policy in recent years. At the state level, we’ve made major investments in building homes affordable for the lowest income people, improving tenant rights and protections, and given local government new tools to build homes in their communities. This legislative session, lawmakers are considering a host of bills to keep people in their homes through the pandemic and economic recovery, and to address the severe shortage of affordable homes that existed before 2020. There are also hopeful signs at the federal level. President Biden has called on Congress to pass a relief bill that includes rental assistance and funding for people experiencing homelessness. His long-term housing platform incudes making sure that everyone who qualifies for housing assistance receives it.
- Speak up with state and federal policy makers. Join the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance – sign up for Action Alerts to be notified when your voice will make a difference.
- Give to organizations that provide housing and other basic needs, but also give to groups doing community organizing and working to change public policy, like the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Tenants Union of Washington State, or National Low Income Housing Coalition.
- Learn about and support organizing networks lead by people who have lived experience with housing instability or homelessness, including the Resident Action Project and other statewide networks building power with Community Change.
Original contribution by Rachael Myers (she/her), Executive Director, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.
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