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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Multiple housing advocacy groups rally for revolutionary changes amid Spokane’s housing crisis

Nazeerah Muhammad works tirelessly to make the $1,025 rent payment for her one-bedroom apartment in Browne’s Addition.

She is among the Spokane renters who have little access to financial safety nets such as bank loans or generational wealth. The American Community Survey found 58% of renters in Spokane are people of color. Muhammad, a Black woman, has been a resident here since 2016.

Muhammad tried to make it work by waiting tables at Shari’s on Division, a few stints with call centers and a job at Kaiser Permanente Health Insurance. She blew through her savings, and it still wasn’t enough.

In March, however, Muhammad found help: the Carl Maxey Center’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The program is the first of its kind in Spokane, centering Black residents, a racial group that commonly experiences housing discrimination.

“This has literally freed me up to find a job, but still be able to pay my bills through having this assistance,” Muhammad said. “And I’m also able to focus on the things that I kind of neglected in order for me to be able to have a future. I cry sometimes because it’s such a relief.”

According to the Tenants Union of Washington state, Spokane is at a dangerously low 0.5% for housing availability, and the cost of homeownership has risen nearly 90% in the past four years.

The Maxey Center’s rental assistance program is just one of many solutions offered to ease the housing crisis. Spokane mirrors national trends of inadequate housing stock, tense tenant-landlord relationships and uncertainty about Gen Z’s chances of being homeowners. The chances of owning a house wane as Gen Zers attempt to balance steep financial obligations such as student loan payments and inflation that is at its highest since the 1980s.

Housing advocacy groups, along with the Spokane City Council, have discussed the dangers of Spokane’s housing crisis. Marley Hochendoner, the executive director of the Northwest Housing Alliance, cites racial discrimination as a primary concern in the housing crisis.

“They are bearing the brunt of a lot of the unfairness and less access to housing,” Hochendoner said. “That’s BIPOC people, people with disabilities, low fixed income people, so there’s a lot of crossover. When we have something that affects everybody, not enough housing, the people that often bear the biggest brunt are people who have already experienced racism, discrimination throughout history and their lifetimes and have so many other barriers in the way.”

Discrimination in housing against people of color has deep roots in the U.S. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited housing discrimination but did not eliminate barriers to fair housing for those affected by redlining, racial covenants, steering, or other discriminatory practices, lowering opportunities for future Black and Latinx homeowners.

“Even (our) zoning codes is something that’s perpetuating discrimination or segregation by not allowing certain structures to be built now,” Hochendoner said. “The city is looking to make some amendments to the residential codes to allow accessory dwelling units and more duplexes, but that’s an example of policies that we can really look at and examine for racial inequities, and how (policies) perpetuate past discrimination that’s a result of restrictive covenants, segregation and real estate agents steering.”

Northwest Housing Alliance participated in the city of Spokane’s Impediments to Fair Housing study in 2019 to understand the racial and economic aspects of the housing crisis.

“In Spokane, for example, the homeownership rate for white people is approximately 63%, and it’s in the 40s for BIPOC communities,” Hochendoner said, adding that the rising rents are more likely to burden people of color who are primarily renters.

A 210-page Housing Action Plan, approved by the City Council last year, assessed the issues contributing to Spokane’s housing crisis. City Council President Breean Beggs and Councilwoman Lori Kinnear spearheaded the project. The final plan was passed in November with a goal of creating new types of housing, an urgent need.

“I’m sure many people are like, ‘You passed this in July, why wasn’t it done by the end of the year?’ ” Beggs said. “If you’re making any significant changes to land use and development rules in the comprehensive plan, there’s a very elaborate public process we have to go through.”

During virtual seminars, the City Council met with organizations such as the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance, the Tenants Union of Washington and local leaders of organizations, such as the NAACP.

The meetings clarified short- and long-term goals to address housing issues, such as universal background checks to lower the cost of rental applications and dismantling barriers to building duplexes and other diverse housing types in single-family zoned areas.

Along with efforts to build equitable housing, organizations are looking to assist struggling renters. Duaa-Rahemaah Williams is a statewide organizer for the Resident Action Project (RAP), a network which teaches leadership skills, storytelling, advocacy and other tactics to those directly impacted by housing and homelessness issues in order to change state policy.

Williams is aiming to create change that centers the experiences of those effected by housing insecurity. The overall goal, she said, is to implement policies and laws. Since RAP is a statewide organization, however, advocating for housing can look different for communities throughout the state.

Williams also collaborates with local organizations like the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance.

“We give them the skills and training to become leaders in the community,” Williams said. “So, we’re all about making changes through storytelling, being on panels, telling our stories, organizing and doing voter civic engagement. Our whole thing is … to make changes on the statewide level.”

The Resident Action Project plans to host a two-day housing summit in June, which will focus on housing injustices experienced by BIPOC renters, people with disabilities, refugees and the LGBTQ+ community.

“Those who are part of the community know their stories better than you do,” Williams said. “They have the experience because they lived it.”

Through her work, Williams has found overwhelming racial disparities in Spokane’s housing crisis.

“The people who have housing injustices are people who are Black, Indigenous, people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, people who are refugees, people whose second language is English,” Williams said. “I make sure that those who are part of RAP, who get information and training in different things, are part of those communities.”

Michelle Pappas is one of the RAP representatives that Williams trained on personal testimony. Pappas, who identifies as biracial and Mexican, has experienced housing issues since childhood.

With the help of RAP, and donations, Pappas secured her first home. Pappas advocates for housing equity, including the decriminalization of those experiencing homelessness. Now, in her role as a program manager for Future Wise, a Spokane nonprofit that advocates for “healthy, equitable and opportunity-rich communities,” Pappas encourages BIPOC youth to organize testimonies about their housing experiences.

“Storytelling in community organizing is not just about teaching people how to tell their stories, but also to remind people that their lived experience is so important and valid,” Pappas said. “I hear a lot of ‘I’m only 17, and I don’t have experience.’ You have 17 years of lived experience, that’s longer than I’ve been at my job.”

To acknowledge April as Fair Housing Month, the YWCA Spokane hosted a panel discussion about racial justice and housing with Terri Anderson, the executive director of Spokane’s chapter of the tenants union and Stephaine Courtney, the founder of the Learning Project.

Anderson discussed the importance of securing housing in order to participate in democratic practices like mail-in ballots and to have access to other important resources. She echoed Hochendoner’s sentiments about the racial disparities that are fueling the crisis.

“Spokane’s Regional Health District did a health study where they did neighborhood by neighborhood the life expectancy,” Anderson said. “You can literally see a 20-year life span difference in the neighborhoods that had white only covenants and the redlined neighborhoods, so we feel it in our lives.”

One of the first physical housing solutions is the Haystack Heights Co-housing project. Located in the South Perry neighborhood,

“Our co-housing is an intergenerational project,” said project co-founder Mariah McKay. “We think we have the best of both worlds here at Haystack, where there’s a 7-minute bike ride to downtown Spokane and an urban green space we’re able to preserve.”

On nearly three acres of land, the Haystack Heights cluster model contains five floors of housing on three flights of stairs. The design leans into the density style of housing, as opposed to the spread-out floor plans of single-family homes. Among the 39 families occupying the housing components, nine contain school-aged children. A majority of the members are over the age of 60.

During the opening ceremony on May 27, Council President Breean Beggs spoke of how Haystack Heights speaks to the Housing Action Plan’s priority of “increasing housing supply, options and affordability for all incomes.”

“In this new world of scarcity of resources, climate change and income inequality … co-housing is a real solution because you have more people living together with fewer resources spent but having a high quality of life,” Beggs said. ”In this moment, although it’s a horrible crisis of housing in the community, out of the crisis is an urgency driving solutions.”

According to Shaping Spokane, the 2017 update to the city’s comprehensive plan, Spokane’s population is projected to jump to 234,306 people by 2037. More than 7,000 affordable housing units must be added to the area’s housing landscape.

While housing advocacy groups promote solutions through rent relief funds, tenant unions and citywide discussions, many fixes are temporary.

Hochendoner hopes the city is looking to implement more of the solutions found during the Housing Action Plan process.

“We must prioritize … the access to housing programs to people who have experienced discrimination,” Hochendoner said. “That’s one of the things I saw in the city’s implementation plan. Housing programs should be a priority for current or former residents of formerly redlined areas.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Feb. 8, 2023, to correct the spelling of Stephaine Courtney’s name.