Washington examines innovative ways to combat homelessness

A booming economy in our state has led to America’s tightest rental market

Veteran Tiffany Charneski talks at a recent Results Washington team meeting about her experience with homelessness as Department of Veteran Affairs Director Alfie Alvarado-Ramos, right, listens. (Results Washington photo)

Nearly two years later, Tiffany Charneski remembers exactly what she was doing March 31, 2016.

“I packed everything I could into a storage unit I couldn’t afford, and I left the rest,” she said recently.

The following day, she and her two children were homeless.

None of this was what she’d expected. A 7 1/2-year Army veteran who’d deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, Charneski had medically retired in 2014 with a service-related disability. She went to school to be a medical assistant, graduating in the top of her class while working part time at an auto-parts store.

Things unraveled. Her military education and housing allowances ended in December 2015. She took a job in sales, but childcare costs ate up virtually all her earnings. Her military disability pay was $1,850 a month; her apartment rent was $1,650.

One day, Charneski got terrible news: Her rent was about to increase $500 a month. She and her family had to leave.

For a couple weeks, they stayed with a friend. After that, they planned to live in her car. Desperate, Charneski told a veterans group on Facebook that they were “semi-homeless.”

“I said semi-homeless,” she said, “because I didn’t want to accept that I had failed.”

Charneski recently shared her story with Gov. Jay Inslee, housing groups and mayors from a dozen cities at a meeting convened by Inslee’s Results Washington team. The focus of the gathering: homelessness and affordable housing.

“Today’s conversation is really intended to facilitate an increased understanding — and action on — homelessness and affordable housing,” Results Washington Director Inger Brinck told attendees.

Washington, where homelessness was dropping until about 2013, now has the fifth-highest homelessness rate in the country, after Hawaii, New York, California and Oregon. The state’s economic boom has driven up housing costs, leaving behind those on fixed incomes.

“We have robust economic growth and cultural growth going on,” Inslee said. “At the same time, we have people within two blocks of here sleeping in the rain, in the state’s capital. That’s unacceptable.”
Gov. Jay Inslee discusses homelessness and affordable housing during a recent Results Washington team meeting. Left is Results Washington Director Inger Brinck. (Results Washington photo)

State agencies and their local partners have ramped up efforts in recent years by:

  • Using Medicaid funding to pay for services to keep people stably housed, including supported employment
  • Awarding crisis-response grants to help communities take immediate steps to shelter the homeless
  • Promoting the use of tiny houses for crisis housing
  • Boosting treatment for opioid addiction and behavioral health issues
  • Increasing housing for homeless youth

The 2018 Washington Legislature, which adjourned last week, also approved several bills to boost affordable housing stock. They include measures to improve access to buildable land, make it more affordable to build housing and expand the number of housing units.

One bill allows jurisdictions to dispose of surplus public land below fair market value, creating more opportunity for developers to build affordable housing. Another measure prohibits property owners from denying tenancy based solely on the rental applicant’s source of income.

One bill will increase bond capacity for the Housing Finance Commission, allowing the commission to provide low-interest loans for affordable housing development. This year, lawmakers also dedicated money for the Housing Trust Fund to preserve aging units, which will keep an estimated 1,000 units a year in the affordable housing inventory.

The capital budget legislators passed includes money to clean up contamination at a brownfield property in Seattle so that, once remediated, it can be the site of affordable housing. Other communities may take a similar approach.

That budget also invests in building projects that will bring units to market quickly and for less money, including developments in Auburn, Orting and Shelton.

A tight rental market

The biggest challenge, those at the meeting said, is mathematical. Washington is growing and housing construction isn’t keeping up. From 2016 to 2017, net migration — people moving in versus people moving out — totaled 90,800. Births — minus deaths — accounted for another 35,800 more people. That’s about 126,000 more people in Washington, and the resulting 1.76 percent increase in the state’s population was the largest since 2006.

“Fundamentally,” Inslee said, “we have to build more housing in Washington, at all layers of the economic spectrum.”

Tedd Kelleher

Since 2005, the state’s population has increased 19 percent, according to the state Department of Commerce’s Tedd Kelleher. Yet housing units — which now number about 3 million — have increased only 14 percent. Kelleher estimates that the state is short at least 118,377 housing units.

It’s basic economics, he said. A lack of supply drives rents higher. People bid up rents, competing for the small number of units available. The average rent in Washington is now $1,842 per month.

In 2010, Kelleher said, rent increases in Washington averaged 1 percent a year. By 2016, it was 6 percent.

A 7 percent rental vacancy rate is considered the “natural” rate, he said. Nationally, the average in 2016 was 5.9 percent. Washington’s is 3.2 percent.

“Washington state now has the tightest rental market in the country,” Kelleher said.

It’s not just a problem for Seattle and the rest of central Puget Sound. In fact, Kelleher said, the tightest rental markets in the state are in Whatcom and Clallam counties, where the 2016 vacancy rate was 1.8 percent. (In King County, it’s 2.7 percent.)

An unexpected lifeline

For Charneski, posting that desperate appeal in 2016 for help on a veterans group on Facebook provided her an unexpected lifeline.

A member of the group immediately drove from Bellingham and helped move the family into a motel for a week. The room had a refrigerator, so they could store perishables from the food bank. Members from the group — as well as the motel owner — chipped in to cover the family’s motel bill for the week.

Charneski spent that week looking for housing and working a long list of phone numbers. One help line staffer said it would take months to even meet with an intake counselor.

She had better luck with the veterans crisis line (1–800–273–8255), which helped her find a transition home until an apartment opened up. To keep going to the same kindergarten, Charneski’s 5-year-old daughter took a taxi by herself to school each day.

The moves and uncertainty were hard on her children, she said. To make them feel better, she told them they were testing out different places to live, to see what felt right for the family.

In June 2016, they moved into their apartment. The family still struggles to make ends meet, but no longer has to worry where they’ll sleep at night.

“I was just one of the lucky ones,” Charneski said.

Her situation is hardly unique. Veterans homelessness, which decreased from 2009 through 2015, has risen in the past two years in Washington.

A major factor, Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs Director Alfie Alvarado-Ramos said, is a growing cohort of Vietnam-era vets on fixed incomes with health problems.

She recently met a 79-year-old Vietnam vet who’d lost his Edmonds home of 15 years because the rent went up $700 a month in two years. He now lives in Oak Harbor, where he was able to get housing with a federal voucher.

“Our veterans deserve better,” Alvarado-Ramos said. “One homeless veteran is too many.”

Othello Village, a community of tiny houses in Seattle that serves homeless Washingtonians, is one of several tiny house properties offered in the state in response to a spike in homelessness. Such villages are not a permanent solution to the problem but can provide immediate relief. (Courtesy of the Low Income Housing Institute)

Tiny homes

Some homeless service organizations are experimenting with tiny houses, homes fewer than a few hundred square feet, often built on wheels.

The Low Income Housing Institute, for example, is a major nonprofit housing developer. It has 61 properties in six counties, including housing for low-wage workers, veterans, young adults, low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

Sharon Lee

But it takes three to four years to build a new apartment building, Director Sharon Lee said, and a single unit can cost $200,000 to $300,000.

“We said, ‘Well, what can we do for the person who’s out on the street or living in their car now?’” Lee said. The group turned to tiny houses.

The tiny houses are 8 feet by 12 feet. They’re insulated and heated. They have lights and electrical outlets. They’re located in groups with a community kitchen, bathrooms and security. Seattle has offered property for tiny house villages, as has the Port of Seattle, some private property owners and church groups.

Since the buildings are fewer than 120 square feet, they can be permitted under a city temporary use permit. Tiny houses are a crisis response, not permanent housing, she said. But they’re dry, warm and secure. Each tiny house costs about $2,200 in materials.

“We are housing hundreds and hundreds of people” in seven villages, Lee said. “They are safe, they are organized, they’re well-run.”

The Low Income Housing Institute partners with SHARE and Nickelsville to manage day-to-day operations and to organize the residents. Social workers help the residents find employment and permanent housing.

“Church groups are building these over a weekend,” Lee said. “People are so tired of seeing homelessness and want to do something.”