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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bills aimed at addressing homelessness move forward in Legislature

Daisy Zavala

Paul “Conan” Duncan was waiting for the bus near Sprague Avenue and Division Street earlier this year, a suitcase with all his belongings beside him, when three young men approached and tried to take it. He scared them off and managed to keep everything.

Duncan moved to Spokane in 2016 and said he has been homeless off and on since he was 22, mainly because of alcohol. He’s now 57 and has been sober for more than five months, he said.

“Being homeless doesn’t mean you’re garbage,” he said, “but you get treated that way consistently.”

Duncan is one of the estimated tens of thousands of homeless people – men, women and children; single adults, families, veterans and even unaccompanied children and teens – on the streets and in shelters in Washington’s cities and towns. It’s a crisis lawmakers are trying to tackle this year with a wide range of proposals working their way through the Legislature.

Lawmakers narrowed those ideas this week, passing several bills to address the crisis by expanding existing programs, helping to build more shelters, improving tenant protections and increasing accessibility to affordable housing.

Several bills designed to make it easier for local communities to build more affordable housing remain alive, including a bill sponsored by Rep. Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, that would allow county and city officials to impose a one-tenth of 1% sales tax for housing services without voter approval.

Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, has sponsored a bill that passed the Senate this week that would allow local housing property tax levies of as much as 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to cover affordable homeownership, home repair and foreclosure prevention programs for low-income households. It also would expand eligibility for that help to households below 80% of the median income, up from households at or below 50% of the median income.

Another bill designed to provide tenants with additional protections passed the Senate as well. It would prohibit landlords from threatening to evict someone for fees unrelated to rent payments, such as late payment fees or security deposit fees, said bill sponsor Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue.

“Late fees would add up, and landlords were evicting tenants for late fees,” she said.

The bill also lets landlords refuse rent payments made in cash, but a landlord who takes cash would have to give tenants a receipt. Kuderer said property managers didn’t want their on-site managers to be handling cash.

A bill passed the House that would require landlords to accept deposits, nonrefundable fees and the previous month’s rent in installments, if a tenant requests it, without charging additional fees.

“It makes sense in bridging the gap between tenants and landlords,” said bill sponsor Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland.

In 2017, Duncan said the manager of the apartment building where he was living refused to take his payments, even though Duncan had never been late on a rent payment.

“I was told things would get ugly if I didn’t leave,” he said. So he did.

Duncan said he believes that if the state worked on rent control and tenants’ rights, the number of homeless people would decline significantly.

“Right now, slumlords pretty well get away with anything,” he said. “They don’t have to have a legitimate reason, they can just not like you and they can throw you out.”

Another bill sponsored by Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, would have prohibited landlords from evicting tenants without just cause, but it didn’t get out of committee; neither did its companion Senate bill.

The Senate is proposing to use $25 million of the capital budget to address homelessness, spending $15 million for increasing local shelter capacity and $10 million to maintain affordable housing services. The House is expected to release its capital budget early next week.

Religious organization would have more flexibility to host encampments or homeless shelters under another bill that passed the House. Sponsored by Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, it would limit the ability of counties and cities to regulate encampments, overnight shelters and temporary small houses.

Duncan has been staying at the Truth Ministries shelter in Spokane since September 2019. Being out on the streets is dangerous, especially for women and children, he said.

“You can’t show any weakness ’cause the guys who do are total victims,” Duncan said. “I don’t like living like that anymore, I don’t like having to be that person anymore.”

Duncan said he is currently receiving mental health assistance from Frontier and was accepted into Better Health through Housing, a SNAP program designed to help people secure housing.

A bill that would’ve expanded state funding for homeless job training with the goal of leading to full-time employment failed to pass by a key deadline last week. Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, the bill’s sponsor, said the importance of self-sufficiency is often left out of the discussion on homelessness.

“There are barriers to work,” Zeiger said. “It’s tough to apply for a job when you’re homeless. It’s tough to get in for the interview, and maybe there are gaps.”

Duncan said many people are immediately afraid of homeless individuals because they assume they’re violent criminals.

“That is really saddening because there are some like that, yes, but there are people with homes like that, too,” he said.

There were many proposals aimed at addressing homelessness, but some of them didn’t make it through the process. Among them was a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, that would’ve created a grant program to convert unused public buildings into housing for homeless people in counties with a population of 100,000 or less.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, who is running for governor, sponsored a bill that would’ve allowed officers to detain a person who exhibits “poor personal hygiene, unpleasant aroma, unexplained injuries, exposure to elements or other unsafe behavior,” and to evaluate them to determine if they suffer from addiction or mental health issues. It didn’t get a hearing.

Another bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, would’ve protected taxpayers from home foreclosure by giving counties the authority to reduce or eliminate accumulated fees on delinquent property taxes.

“We’ve got such an absolute crisis with the homeless out there. … Why would you want to exacerbate the problem by creating these penalties that become almost a 24% interest rate?” he said. “You’d never be able to address the principle, you’d be so busy trying to catch up on interest.”

Holy’s bill got a hearing and was voted out of committee, but never came up for a vote in the full Senate. Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, had a similar bill that would have eliminated penalties imposed on delinquent fees but would have required payment of existing penalties. That bill got a hearing, but failed to get out of the committee.

Bills that passed the House or the Senate have until March 12 to pass the other chamber and become law.