by Ashley Archibald
(This article was originally published in the Jan 10 issue of Real Change and has been reprinted with permission)
A New Year, A New Legislative Session
Lawmakers returned to Olympia to kickoff a legislative marathon with a regular session on Jan. 8 that will wrap up on March 8. That gives relatively little time for legislators to get through a raft of pre-filed bills, as well as the hundreds that have languished in the House Rules committee, waiting to see the light of day in the Senate.
This time, some might. Manka Dhingra, a Democrat, defeated Republican candidate Jinyoung Lee Englund in a special election held in November to fill the Senate seat left vacant after the death of 54-year-old Sen. Andy Hill. Now Democrats hold the slimmest of majorities in the Senate and retain their majority in the House, giving them control of both sides of the Washington Legislature for the first time since 2012. As they take those majorities and continue to hold the governorship, Democrats have a shot at passing bills despite the short session.
And in the realm of affordable housing, homelessness and poverty reduction, that narrow majority could make a difference.
“I would say that Democratic control in the Senate is most significant because it allows for Democrats to set the policy agenda,” Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, said, who has been advocating for House Bill 1570, which would preserve funding for homelessness and affordable housing. “All of the committee chairs switch. There’s opportunity to hear bills like 1570 and debate them. We did not have that opportunity with Republicans in control.” The following are bills advanced by Democrats that, if passed, could make a difference for poor or marginalized Washingtonians.
HB 1075 — Concerning the capital budget
The capital budget is a giant spending bill that appropriates money to invest in things from office buildings to prisons to hospitals. It also contains the Housing Trust Fund, a program launched in 1986 that has invested $1 billion to build or preserve roughly 47,000 units of housing, according to the Washington Department of Commerce.
Under normal circumstances, the capital budget passes in odd-numbered years with a supplemental budget considered in even-numbered years of Washington’s biennial budget cycle. However, it hit a wall when Senate Republicans attached its passage to a legislative fix to a Washington State Supreme Court decision that raised the requirements on drilling wells in rural areas.
The issue is complex, but in effect the court found that people who want to develop land in rural areas outside of municipal water systems could no longer simply tap into underground water with a well. Instead, they had to prove that they had a right to that water.
Republicans and the building industry argue that moving forward without a legislative fix to the decision jeopardizes almost $7 billion a year in economic activity derived from building single-family homes that rely on wells.
“The people of Washington feel the pain of not having a capital budget right now, but it pales in comparison to the pain of postponing the Hirst solution we already negotiated with the House,” said Sen. Randi Becker in a September statement.
Democrats counter that housing projects have already applied for funds and are sitting idle while the state suffers from a significant lack of affordable housing and a homelessness crisis.
The capital budget involves $4.18 billion in new appropriations, $2.73 billion of which is funded by bonds. Bonds require a 60 percent majority in both houses, so even with their new majority, Democrats need Republicans to go along with them.
HB 1570 — Document recording fees
Document recording fees seem to be a perennial issue in Washington. Housing advocates want to make permanent the fees, which are assessed on certain real estate documents and provide money for housing and homelessness programs at the state and county level.
Advocates have succeeded several times in preventing the fees from sunsetting, but have failed to get some fees made permanent. As it stands, proponents have to come back every few years to preserve the funding.
This bill fixes a portion of the document recording fees at the current rate of $40, which is divided between the county and the state. It gives counties permission to charge and keep additional money for homeless housing and assistance, and allows counties to use those homeless housing and assistance surcharges to pay down general obligation bonds already taken out for those purposes.
It also changes the Home Security Fund, used to pay for homeless housing projects and private market housing vouchers, into a nonappropriated fund.
HB 1570 passed the house in May 2017, but didn’t receive a hearing at the Senate level. Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle) hopes that the new makeup of the Senate and the pressing issue of homelessness will change that this time around.
That stability is important for local governments, which rely on the resources to combat the housing crisis and for individuals and families who need vouchers that the fees pay for on an ongoing basis.
“The challenge is that when the revenue stream stops, it not only harms crisis intervention but also the long-term stability for people who were formerly homeless,” Macri said.
HB 1633 — Source of income
In most situations, a dollar is a dollar, but not when it comes to housing.
Landlords take steps to ensure that when they bring on a tenant, that person can afford the unit. This is increasingly difficult for low-income people in a housing market of ever-increasing rents, but vouchers and other rental assistance programs can help bring the costs down for families and individuals in need.
That’s if a landlord will accept them.
Section 8, a better-known voucher program, promises a private landlord that the government will pick up the tab for monthly rent that exceeds 30 percent of the prospective tenant’s monthly income. But the program is voluntary, and despite that guarantee, landlords do not universally choose to accept those tenants.
Municipalities have stepped in to prevent what they call “source of income discrimination” to ensure that renters can get a place to live, even if the government picks up a portion of the tab. This bill would do the same, offering protections for renters with legal sources of income including Social Security payments and assistance programs.
Public testimony in favor of the bill noted that this was important given that the law requires that 45 percent of certain funds be spent on vouchers in a for-profit rental market.
Landlord advocates expressed concern that because the bill applies to more than Section 8 vouchers, it could saddle them with tenants who do not have a permanent subsidy, and will not be able to pay for more than a few months. Some programs don’t cover security deposits.
The House has not yet voted on this bill, which was shelved through all three special sessions, but the passage of similar measures in Seattle and Renton — the latter an emergency ordinance to save families under imminent threat of eviction — may indicate momentum that could carry through to the state Legislature.
HB 1783 — Legal financial obligations
Legal financial obligations (LFO) sound straightforward on their face. They are fees imposed by courts on people who go through the legal system that can go toward a number of things, including victim restitution and collection fees on the original debt.
But critics see them as an obstacle to getting out of the criminal justice system by hanging large debts on people and charging them excessive interest rates when they can’t pay up. The end consequence: Poor people, often people of color, remain trapped under the weight of potentially thousands of dollars in debt that just keeps growing.
HB 1783 could help fix that system. It would bar courts from imposing costs on someone who, at the time of sentencing, can’t afford to pay; contains rules around payment plans; eliminates interest on certain fees; and prevents sanctions on people who find that they can’t pay the fine later, unless the offender’s failure to pay is “willful.”
Black-led organizers have been fighting for LFO reform, as have organizations like Columbia Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union. This particular bill has passed out of the House twice only to die in the Senate. With the Senate flipped, it has a chance to move forward.
Ashley Archibald is a political reporter
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Jason Rosenberg