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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: We can’t patch the cracks in the housing system with short-term fixes

A man sleeps inside the Spokane Convention Center on Tuesday while seeking shelter from the freezing temperatures.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
A man sleeps inside the Spokane Convention Center on Tuesday while seeking shelter from the freezing temperatures. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Five hundred thousand.

One thousand-two-hundred- forty-seven.

Three.

Those figures are a measure of just three of the gaps in our current system of housing that is leaving hundreds of people on the streets in below-freezing weather.

The first figure is the cost – so far – of the city’s short-lived emergency warming center at the Spokane Convention Center. That stopgap effort to cover for an insufficient system lasted just two weeks, at a cost exceeding half a million dollars, including $270,000 drawn from reserves.

Meanwhile, it’s been below freezing night after night.

You might call it a farce, except it’s tragedy. As the city has failed year after year to mount – or even seriously try to mount – a sufficient response to the need, our mayors have seemed to be taken by complete surprise each year by the arrival of winter. The convention center debacle was the worst instance of this yet.

With the exception of the fact that it managed to get people indoors in life-threatening conditions, it was a fiasco. The space was unsuited for the need, and the people who ran it seemed unprepared, or too short-handed, to manage it. There was costly damage to the center – a foreseeable problem that went unforeseen, and which seemed to be the mayor’s main concern after the fact.

As the bill comes due and the search for a replacement warming center drags on, it becomes ever clearer that not only has the city failed to develop permanent shelter, it doesn’t have even a kernel of a plan to stand up emergency shelters – which it is required to do by city law.

All while heaving money that might be put toward permanent solutions into the fire.

The second number is the average rent for an apartment in Spokane: $1,247. That’s an increase of 46% over the past five years, according to figures from the apartment market survey of the Washington Center for Real Estate at the University of Washington.

Those increases came in a city where half of renters spend more than a third of their income on rent – the guideline housing advocates use for defining whether someone is “cost-burdened” by housing. A fifth spend half their income on rent.

And they come in a city where there are almost no vacancies. This reached an unprecedented state last year, when there was less room available in Spokane’s apartment market than Bethlehem at tax time.

“I’ve dealt with some of the hottest global housing markets in my career, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” James Young, the executive director of real estate center, told the Journal of Business in June.

At that point, Spokane’s rental availability had fallen from around 6% in 2018 to below 1%, driven by COVID-19 keeping people home and eviction moratoriums.

That has crept up slightly. It’s now at 1.4% for all rental types, according to the fall 2021 report.

The connection between this reality and the problem of homelessness is direct. Nationally, research has shown that an increase of $100 in a community’s average rent is associated with an increase of homelessness between 6% and 32%, according to the state Department of Commerce.

Which brings us to that final number: three.

That’s how many years someone who can’t afford market-rate rents has to wait before receiving federal housing assistance in Spokane, according to Ben Stuckart, the former City Council president and mayoral candidate who is now executive director of the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium.

Stuckart said he is inundated with emails from people who say they can’t afford to rent a place at market rate here these days. He said the pace of such emails has risen dramatically over this time last year; these people want to get in line to apply for federal housing assistance.

Many of these folks are very near homelessness. According to Department of Commerce estimates in 2020, nearly 7,500 people in Spokane are “unstably housed.”

The dearth of affordable housing should be a clear warning that we are fooling ourselves if we think scrambling around for last-minute solutions is going to work. Without more serious effort, the gaps – the shelter gap, the affordable housing gap and the leadership gap – are only going to grow.

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