There is no singular solution to addressing homelessness and poverty in our community, and there never will be. If there was a silver bullet to ending each circumstance that leads to someone sleeping on our street, the City of Spokane employees who devote their professional lives to this mission would implement it immediately. The best of America’s communities, Spokane included, continually face the complexities of addiction, inequities in our economy, and a social safety net with holes that a single city is unable to close on its own.
The challenges of poverty and despair are communal, painful, and relentless. It feels like almost every action we take to address homelessness in our community is a reaction because it is. Whether it is regulating activities such as sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks or scrambling to open warming shelters, we are constantly reacting to the exposure of abject poverty and the perceived ills of society sleeping on our doorstep. We want it gone. We want it to disappear. Citizens are rightfully frustrated that their elected leaders have failed to identify a solution to make it go away. All elected leaders should understand that critique.
There is an immediate need in Spokane for more temporary shelter spaces. The City’s Community, Housing, and Human Services Department continues to work diligently to identify new partners willing to provide more spaces, but frankly, temporary is exactly what it means. It isn’t a dependable long-term solution.
We have the data(1) on how citizens ended up on our streets. Many of them lack stable income, are escaping domestic violence, or suffer from addiction. Our community has high-quality programs for domestic violence survivors such as the YWCA Domestic Violence Shelter, and we have fantastic non-profits that help people take back control of their lives without drugs or alcohol every single day. We should support these programs whole-heartedly and identify the resources necessary to expand upon them. But many of the families on our streets simply cannot find an affordable place to live in our community. We lack critical market-rate and affordable housing availability which has led to historically low rental vacancies, tight real estate markets, and a shortage of affordable housing units that has left more than 800 of our citizens holding vouchers with nowhere to spend it. Addressing housing access, housing affordability is something we can do together right now. In 2019, we can and we must adopt sound public policies that help get our citizens into permanent housing, keep our elderly in their homes, level the playing field between tenants and landlords, get a head-start on the population growth we anticipate in our community over the next decade, and invest in the growth of our local businesses.
We must amend our land use plans to allow for greater density in our Centers and Corridors zone. By implementing the City’s Comprehensive Plan intention for Centers and Corridors, we can drive high-density growth to the areas that have been planned for that type of growth with amenities like public transit. This is how we get critically need market-rate and affordable housing while protecting the historic character and charm of every Spokane neighborhood. This is the desirable ten-minute walkable neighborhoods that I hear continually from constituents. We can do this in 2019.
We need to ease regulations that prevent property owners from maximizing their property’s space. Citizen groups including neighborhood advocates, planners, real estate experts, and developers have come together to make recommendations for increasing density and housing variety in our city. It is time to take their recommendations and implement them. This includes easing restrictions on building heights where growth is already permitted and ensuring we are environmentally efficient with each parcel within our boundaries. We can ease these regulations in 2019 and allow property owners and families the opportunity to utilize their property’s space for people effectively.
We must invest local dollars in affordable housing through a housing levy program. Housing providers in Spokane will tell you that there is an estimated $40,000 financing gap for affordable housing units. The lack of a local match makes projects less competitive for Housing Trust Fund dollars and other competitive housing programs. Housing units are not getting built and the need specifically for senior and workforce housing continues to rise. Voters may get the opportunity to invest annually in 350 new affordable housing units for seniors and working families as soon as August of 2019. A housing levy program dedicated to workforce and senior housing will protect our hard working and elderly citizens from being priced out of the community they have called home for their entire lives.
We must level the playing field between tenant and landlord. There are common-sense solutions that can be implemented right now to improve the landlord and tenant relationship. We should end one-way leases and establish an appropriate notification period prior to a tenant’s rent being raised or evicted without cause. We can also set aside funds to help tenants relocate when property owners change the use of the building. We should also partner with Federal programs to assist with building rehabilitation for property owners who have seen the wear of their assets over many years of serving the rental market. Spokane is behind most American cities in implementing these basic reforms. We must consider and pass a suite of landlord and tenant protections in early 2019.
We must fight against the inequities of our economic system by aggressively working to raise wages, develop local businesses, and recruit employers who treat their employees with dignity. Every single public policy approach we take to addressing poverty is made within the context of an economic system that rewards the wealthiest among us at the clear expense of citizens less fortunate. This is the reality of how we have chosen to organize our economy. We have to fight against the new national norm of selling a community’s soul in hopes of being graced with the relocation of a brand name private company. Instead, we must be competitive by being wise with our economic development strategy and by selling the work ethic of our citizens as the reason we can compete with any place.
- We must continue the successful Targeted Investment Program that has led to the revitalization of the East Sprague Avenue area. There are several neighborhoods on the verge that could use that extra boost. In 2019, where should we consider the next Targeted Investment Program be implemented?
- We must strengthen our Public Development Authorities (PDA) to recruit businesses near the Spokane Airport, Hillyard, and in the University District. We can see the Northeast PDA take a major step forward in 2019 by hiring an Executive Director. The University District Bridge opening will present many opportunities in 2019. The West Plains PDA was successful in recruiting the new Amazon Warehouse which will spur further growth near City investments at the Spokane Airport and the City’s Waste-to-Energy Facility. We must continue strengthening the partnerships between the PDA’s and other entities across the state and region.
- We must stay true to our local businesses by making it easier for them to grow in the city and hire local qualified workers. It is time to shed the economic development strategies of the past two decades and invest from within.
We must raise our voice regionally, statewide, and nationally. The City of Spokane lacks critical tools to address some of the issues of poverty. County government has typically held the responsibility of mental health funding and state government’s role in alleviating poverty and homelessness is crucial. The City of Spokane must lead statewide and keep a permanent seat at the table. We must demand our Congressional representation protects the successful anti-poverty programs such as Community Development Block Grants and HOME Investment Partnership that provide cities much-needed resources to keep their citizens off the streets.
Watching our neighbors suffer from poverty and despair is painful. All of our citizens, the citizens suffering from homelessness and the citizens who see it on their doorstep, deserve an aggressive but balanced approach with long-term and lost-lasting solutions. 2019 can be the year we make a leap forward through public policy to addressing poverty and homelessness in our community. We have to try. Spokane is ready to make that leap.
(1) 2018 Homeless Point-in-Time Count