While housing and homeless advocates won some very important battles at the Statehouse this year, Senate Republicans are still winning the war. Let’s have a look.
First, the good news. The operating budget passed last week contains no cuts to poor people’s survival programs, and, with $75 million for the Housing Trust Fund, the capital budget adds some badly needed new housing dollars.
This will create nearly 2,000 new homes for homeless and vulnerable people, as well as 500 new beds for farm workers. There is also $15 million in the budget for low-income home weatherization.
The transportation package that was funded under SB 5987 also contains $20 million for transit-related affordable housing. Another bill, HB 1223, sponsored earlier this session by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, secured another $45 million for affordable housing in transit areas.
In an extraordinarily tough budget year, where the state is under court order to adequately fund education and mental health services, this new support for housing was far from a given.
There’s more good news. The final operating budget contains full funding for the perennially attacked Housing and Essential Needs, and the Aged, Blind and Disabled programs.
While these programs have been whittled back over the years to mere shadows of their former selves — the disability grant is a paltry $197 per month — this was the rare year that they didn’t get slashed even further.
And, there was good news for struggling single moms. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash grant got a long overdue 9 percent increase this year. Between 1981 and 2012, the inflation-adjusted value of cash assistance to needy families fell by an average of 44 percent across the nation.
Another possible funding breakthrough was passed with HB 2263, which allows local communities to place a new tax on the ballot to support affordable housing and mental health services. A similar local taxing authority raised $100 million for mental health services in 2014.
Finally, the Affordable Care Act also continues to be a game changer in Washington state. The federal government has ruled that Medicaid funds can be used to pay for medical services within permanent supportive housing, and the state Health Care Authority has filed a request to access these funds for services.
This new investment in Medicaid dollars, along with increases to the State Housing Trust Fund, could mean big changes for 30 percent or so of homeless people who struggle with mental illness or addiction.
On the tax justice front, however, things are less than rosy.
In the plus column is an expired tax break for Microsoft. While the software giant will have to pony up an estimated $128 million in taxes over the next four years, this, to one of the biggest corporations in the world, is a small drop in its enormous bucket of unfair tax practices.
WashPIRG estimates, for example, that Microsoft has avoided nearly $25 billion in federal taxes over a three-year period through use of offshore tax havens.
Economic and racial justice is where we run into a bit of a wall. Democratic efforts to tax capital gains, increase the minimum wage, legislate paid sick leave and address climate change were all met with Republican defeat in the 2015 session.
HB 1390, which removed the 12 percent interest on non-restitution Legal Financial Obligations, died in the Senate. So did HB 1553, which would have reduced employment barriers for adults and juveniles with criminal records. The “ban the box” bills, also known as the Washington Fair Chance Act, died as well.
Other dead bills this session include the Washington Voting Rights Act, the pro-immigrant Washington Family Unity Act and a state-documents surcharge fund for local housing and homeless assistance.
What we saw this session was that advocacy works. Our friends at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and other homeless and housing advocates have turned what could have been an exceptionally bloody year into one of overall gains.
However, the levers that produce radical inequality through regressive taxation and discriminatory public policy remain firmly in place. We have a lot of work to do.