Policy changes are necessary to address the situation of those homeless
January 28 was this year’s annual Point in Time homeless census to track the number of people living unsheltered at the end of the coldest month of the year. This year’s data have not yet been released, but numbers in Thurston County have been dropping over the last several years in a trend attributed to coordinated efforts by social service providers.
The downward trend is positive. But with 476 people sleeping in the January cold in 2015, our community had more people without shelter last year than in 2006, when the county established a ten-year goal to halve homelessness by 2015.
Social services providers as well as people experiencing homelessness are working hard to make the most of limited public funds and alleviate the crisis. While some people experiencing homelessness need intensive mental health and substance counseling to enjoy stable, permanent housing, others are already waiting in line ready to move in. But people that have fallen on hard times face a litany of structural barriers keeping them from permanent housing, and advocates say policy changes are needed to address the situation.
Jeffrey Williams is a client seeking permanent housing through the rapid rehousing organization SideWalk. A veteran, he encrypted submarine codes at a naval base in Australia during the Cold War. Right now he is staying with a fellow veteran while he waits for a placement, but for the past ten months, he was living out of his car up and down the I-5 corridor. Jeffrey has suffered from untreated PTSD and bipolar disorder, as well has substance addiction, which together have led to his current situation.
He kicked the hard drugs over a year ago, and he has a reliable service benefit coming in every month to support himself, but basic housing stability continues to be out of reach.
Jeffrey’s efforts to secure stable housing have been complicated by a felony conviction in 2003. In order to apply for housing, tenants need to pay $30 or more for a background check. With the low vacancy rates in Thurston County as well as up and down the I-5 corridor, people with a criminal record are routinely denied housing. This problem is two-fold. In addition to leaving him homeless, he has had to put up cash for screening after screening only to be turned away at the door.
Another problem has been Jeffrey’s limited income. He earns a veteran service benefit of $651 per month, but many landlords require a tenant’s income to be twice the rent or more, leaving Jeffrey and others like him out of the cold.
Across the state, many people like Jeffrey are denied housing because of this rigorous screening process, which often roots out applicants on the basis of income requirements, credit ratings, employment history, or a criminal record.
Source of income discrimination
Some landlords refuse to rent to someone because they’re receiving housing subsidies or other public benefits. Source of income discrimination, as advocates call it, is a substantial problem in Thurston County.
Meg Martin, who runs the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter, sees this frequently in her work. She attributes the prevalence of the discrimination right now to the low vacancy rates in Thurston County, which have resulted in competition over a small number of apartments.
Chris Lowell, Executive Director of the Housing Authority of Thurston County (HATC) which oversees the Section 8 voucher program, has also seen this practice in her work.
“Don’t get me wrong—we in this community have a great deal of wonderful landlords that we work with,” Lowell said, referring to the 1200 landlords HATC works with to house their approximately 2200 clients. “It is not an everyday occurrence, but it does happen.”
The full extent of the problem is difficult to measure in light of the compounding variables in the screening process, but cases of outright animosity toward Section 8 and the people who depend on it are clear.
HATC has gotten angry calls from landlords merely for proposing to build a housing facility near their property, because the landlords don’t want clients living in the vicinity.
Lowell has seen landlords not only refuse to rent to new applicants receiving the subsidy, but also force out current residents who became eligible for the voucher during their tenancy. This destabilization has far-reaching implications for households with children, who often need to change schools when their families relocate.
“We’re trying to avoid them moving two or three times a year as they’ve done in the past being homeless,” Lowell said. “So to have a source of income problem on top of the screening criteria is very difficult.”
This type of discrimination is one of the reasons the Section 8 waiting list is so long. HATC brings in approximately $15.4 million annually from HUD to cover subsidies for beneficiary households, but the hard part is finding landlords willing to rent to their clients. The rigorous screening criteria coupled with the high cost of rent and low vacancy rate in Thurston County all factor in, but the fact that many landlords simply refuse to rent to beneficiaries exacerbates the problem.
A policy fix
The City of Tumwater already has an Unfair Housing Practices ordinance on the books banning source of income discrimination, but other cities in Thurston County have yet to follow suit.
State legislation introduced last year would prohibit this practice across the state, but rental associations have pushed back. In a public hearing, lobbyist Chester Baldwin testified on behalf of the Washington Rental Owners Association that many landlords choose not to take Section 8 because of the hassles associated with the home health and safety inspections that are required as part of the housing subsidy.
Michele Thomas, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, sees this rhetoric as a cover for deep-seated stereotypes about households that benefit from public assistance. It can also be a proxy for other kinds of discrimination, allowing landlords to sidestep fair housing laws. People with Section 8 are disproportionately people of color, seniors, or single parents. Additionally, eighty-three percent of Section 8 clients have a disability, rendering them more likely to require accommodations to make their home accessible.
Thomas does not see that as an acceptable reason for turning someone away. “If you’re in the business of something as precious as putting a roof over someone’s head, you should be asked to make accommodations,” she said.
Last year, source of income discrimination legislation failed to make it out of committee. This year, advocates are trying to sweeten the deal. Two provisos in the Governor’s budget would help soften resistance from landlords and support local efforts to end the practice. The Rapid Housing Improvement Program would invest $1.5 million to support landlords in making health and safety upgrades required by HUD inspections if the landlord commits to renting to tenants on Section 8. It would also reserve $125,000 to mitigate landlords in the event that a voucher-holder caused damage beyond their deposit. Landlords would only be eligible for the second fund in jurisdictions prohibiting source of income discrimination, a factor that could encourage more communities to address the issue at the municipal level or to move forward with the statewide ban.
These proposals would not solve the broader issues of housing affordability and barriers to rehousing, but advocates say they would address an important part of the situation. One way or another, they are determined to move the conversation forward.
“If we’re going to rely on the private market to provide the vast majority of [housing],” Thomas said, “then we need to make sure that the private market is accessible and affordable to the whole range of people who need it.”
Michaela Williams is a former legislative staffer. She lives in Olympia.