Washington State proposes protections for homeless housing applicants

Washington's skyrocketing housing markets have pushed landlords to avoid risky tenants like those relying on Section 8 housing assistance. Now local legislators have passed a bill seeking to block this kind of housing discrimination.

Elaine Thompson/AP/File
Eva Stough enters her tiny house at a homeless encampment on Nov. 9, 2017 in Seattle. In 2015, the city built seven villages of these 120-square-foot shacks as part of an effort to accommodate the surging number of homeless residents in the region.

Mindy Woods fought her way out of homelessness.

It's a success story state lawmakers and advocacy groups are trying to replicate by targeting perhaps the biggest challenge faced by the homeless: rejection.

Ms. Woods slept on friends' couches for eight months and had eight property owners turn her down before she found a landlord willing to accept her Section 8 voucher, a federal subsidy that helps low-income people pay their rent.

"I have no criminal record, no evictions," Woods, a Navy veteran, said in an interview from the one-bedroom apartment she finally landed in 2016 in Edmonds, north of Seattle. "There's no reason not to rent to me."

The obstacles she faced may soon become illegal in Washington state, where legislators are advancing a bill that would prohibit landlords from turning away tenants who rely on Section 8 vouchers, Social Security, or veterans benefits.

While Washington boasts one of the country's fastest-growing economies, the flip side is a housing market where rents have surged and vacancy rates are the country's lowest. Cities and states along the West Coast and elsewhere are grappling with a rise in homelessness for the same reasons. In counts conducted in early 2017, the West Coast spike was so high that it raised the overall homelessness figure for the first time since 2010, to nearly 554,000 people.

In Washington state, it adds up to more than 21,000 people without stable housing, according to a 2017 federal study. That's 29 homeless people for every 10,000 state residents – fifth-highest in the US – compared with a national average of 17, according to the report.

The proposed measure would establish a fund to reimburse property owners for any damages or lost rental income caused by tenants who rely on federal housing assistance.

The bill passed both legislative chambers, but changes made in the Senate must be approved in the House before it can advance to Gov. Jay Inslee. Eleven other states and Washington, D.C., have enacted similar laws, although not all allow landlords to recover potential losses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"The critical component of this bill is the mitigation fund because if the tenant moves out and leaves damages or doesn't pay rent, the landlord can be made whole," said Sean Martin, interim executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington. The group, which supports the measure, represents 5,400 landlords. "This bill doesn't create more units, but it's a small piece in the housing puzzle."

Perhaps most worrying for Washington is a nation-leading 67 percent jump since 2007 in the number of those classified as chronically homeless, or people with disabilities who have been without a home for extended periods, according to the federal study. That compares with a 27 percent decline nationally.

Karen Eichelberger has been living out of her car for four years. She's one of more than 4,000 Washington residents classified as chronically homeless, and she sees no relief.

The $750 Eichelberger receives monthly in Social Security disability income isn't enough for rent, and her attempt to secure a Section 8 voucher failed.

In Seattle's eastern suburb of Kirkland, she's parked next to two-dozen other vehicles housing single women in the parking lot of Lake Washington United Methodist Church. Car camps have sprouted on the lots of willing hosts in western Washington.

"One of the things the metrics don't account for is the psychological impact of being rejected," said Karina O'Malley, a church volunteer who helps manage the camp. "There are only so many times you can get rejected and still pick yourself back up."

In the absence of legislation to incentivize the acceptance of Section 8 vouchers, politicians and advocates have been scrambling to keep up with the surge of unsheltered residents.

"We have such an incredible housing and homelessness crisis that it's finally compelling people to do something about it," said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit advocacy group.

Ms. Lee's organization started building so-called tiny houses, portable 120-square-foot shacks that can make up villages of 14 to 44 units. Their simple wood construction and relatively cheap $2,200-per-unit price tag has helped scale the project to seven villages with a capacity to house 350 people since its start in 2015.

The houses have earned the endorsements of prominent politicians including Inslee and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

In the heart of south Seattle's renovated Rainier Valley neighborhood, historically one of the city's lower-income areas, lies a compound of 28 tiny houses and 10 tents. The community of 56 adults and eight children is surrounded by newly erected middle-income and luxury apartment buildings advertising amenities such as on-site gyms and billiards rooms.

Since October, Temu Williams, has lived in the village of colorful shacks, where residents share the use of portable bathrooms and showers, as well as tents for a kitchen and television room.

He believes steps being taken in Olympia fail to address the "root" of the problem: the lack of rent-setting regulation.

"What's to stop landlords from jacking up rents so high that you can't afford it, even if you have Section 8?" Mr. Williams said.

Groups defending landlord interests have successfully lobbied for years against proposals to cap rent increases. The Rental Housing Association argues on its website that rent controls discourage the construction of new units, reduce the quality of existing ones and raise borrowing costs.

The association backs the establishment of a voluntary rent-control program where landlords, in exchange for tax breaks, could set aside a portion of units that would be subject to a cap, said Mr. Martin, its interim executive director.

"Rent controls have failed everywhere they've been implemented. If you think rent is expensive here, look at San Francisco and New York," he said.

For Woods, the Edmonds resident who overcame homelessness, final approval of the bill banning source-of-income discrimination in housing would be an accomplishment. She's been helping rally support for the measure for six years.

"Being homeless is traumatic; there is nobody that just forgets about it and moves on and it's unicorns and rainbows," she said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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