Every reporter I talk to tells me that homelessness is the defining issue of Spokane’s mayoral race. In candidate forums, I’m asked about my views on housing first, access to drug treatment programs, and how to curb vandalism and crime downtown. But is homelessness truly the defining issue facing our city, or just the most visible one?
Speaking with residents from every corner of Spokane, a consistent theme emerged: Our neighbors are concerned about how fast Spokane is growing, and many are wondering how we build Spokane’s future without leaving its current residents behind.
When we talk about Spokane’s growth, our conversations often turn to our city’s infrastructure. We discuss potholes, aging bridges and slowing traffic. We ask how we can infill housing to grow our community while maintaining 20-minute commutes and a small-city feel. But what if instead of talking about asphalt and concrete, our discussions about Spokane’s future focused on how we strengthen our human infrastructure?
I grew up on the North Side of Spokane, in neighborhoods where families often struggled to make ends meet. Many of my classmates at Rogers High School were on free or reduced-price school lunch programs. The experiences of my childhood shaped my work ethic, my belief in good fiscal management, and my commitment to Spokane’s working poor.
Nationally, 78 percent of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck. Fifty-eight percent of us have less than $1,000 in savings. Locally, nearly half of Spokane County renters spend 30 percent or more of their paycheck on housing; 20 percent spend more than half.
Neighborhoods like Hillyard, West and East Central, and Logan are filled with hardworking families who deserve a hand up. And in a growing city, where new families from Seattle and California are driving up home prices and widening the divide between rich and poor, these are the families most likely to be left behind.
As mayor, I plan to cut 1 percent across the board from the city budget’s general fund and repurpose some of this money to help Spokane’s working families. My intention is not to create new entitlements, but to empower those for whom the American dream is just over the next horizon. By investing in those who have the tools to improve their lives, we can increase home ownership rates, freeing up affordable housing, and create the skilled workforce that will attract more business and grow our tax base.
First, I will invest in our outreach programs to help people in low-paying jobs move into skilled trades and better-paying careers. Our efforts would build on the already existing programs offered by our community colleges and business associations. Often those who need these programs don’t know they exist or don’t understand how to navigate the complicated bureaucracy of applying for them. By increasing outreach and simplifying our processes, we can move more workers into the skilled labor jobs that our economy needs.
Second, like many young people, I didn’t have the money to pay for college. Many teachers encouraged me to attend a four-year institution and cover the cost with student loans. But knowing how student loans mortgaged my brother’s future for an uncertain payoff, I passed on college and entered the workforce instead.
Spokane’s high school students need access to financial literacy and student loan counseling. Partnering with the Spokane Resource Center, I plan to offer local high school sophomores and juniors post-graduation counseling to inform them of their options, advise them on how to pay for college, and give them an accurate picture of how postsecondary education can help them. No longer will Spokane students sign on the dotted line for tens-of-thousands of dollars in student loans without knowing whether their investment will pay off.
Lastly, I want to continue to invest in innovative ways to create homegrown Spokane businesses in our business incubators. At 22, I had the drive, work ethic and vision to start a business, but not the capital. I persevered to create a successful business that has 12 employees and numerous clients across our region, but I often thought about how much easier the process would have been if I’d found a mentor early on. Through this we can give our local people the opportunity to develop our economy without having to seek better opportunities in Seattle or Portland.
I believe that Spokane’s best days are ahead! By investing in our working people, high school students and small businesses, we can grow our economy and create opportunities for everyone. Our city can grow bigger, but more importantly stronger, if we focus our efforts on those who are already here while attracting new residents.
Spokane can and will tackle the challenge of homelessness, but building a stronger Spokane, one that grows on a firm foundation, will only happen if we support our working and middle class residents achieve economic opportunity and financial freedom.
Jonathan Bingle is a candidate for Spokane mayor.
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