It wasn’t so much a question of “if” but “when” Washington Governor Jay Inslee would announce his candidacy for president.
Those reading the tea leaves looked at Inslee’s air travel, his growing public profile and his exploratory committee for clues, but the governor made it official at A&R Solar on Friday, March 1.
In his announcement, Inslee staked out a claim on the issue of climate change, something that none of the other Democratic challengers have so far done.
“This is our moment to put the greatest threat to our existence, to our economy, to our health at the very top of the nation’s agenda,” Inslee told the crowd.
Since Inslee took office in 2013, he has overseen an economic boom that has catapulted Washington into the top of lists of job growth and performance.
At the same time, the state has seen homelessness increase by 26 percent, likely driven by the Seattle-King County area that comprises more than 50 percent of people experiencing homelessness in the state, despite having just under 30 percent of the population.
Inslee’s record combatting the crisis has been indirect. There are relatively few policy levers that a governor can pull to influence the amount of housing targeted at low-income people available in the state beyond asking the legislature for more money.
His attempts to grow the pie have been stymied by lawmakers’ resistance to new taxes, particularly on capital gains. While Inslee has included a capital gains tax in his budget, he is not supportive of an income tax.
Washington has the most regressive tax system in the country, meaning the poorer you are, the larger the percentage of income you pay in taxes. Families in poverty pay 17.8 percent of their income in state and local taxes, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
Inslee oversaw a vast expansion of wealth and simultaneously a growth in poverty and homelessness.
Efforts to expand the social safety net to take care of people at the bottom of the economic ladder have not kept pace with the need.
Still, millions of people have benefited from Inslee’s policies.
Inslee championed the Medicaid expansion that brought health care to a broad swath of Washingtonians, advocated for reforms to the mental health system, supported the minimum wage increase and fought for paid sick and family leave.
These legislative efforts arguably bolstered the social safety net to prevent people from falling into homelessness.
“He doesn’t talk a lot about homelessness, but the intersection is there,” said Jim Baumgart, senior policy advisor on human services to the governor.
It is safe to say it hasn’t been enough to solve the crisis.
At its core, homelessness is driven by a lack of affordable housing. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a person would have to make $26.87 per hour to pay less than 30 percent of their income on housing in the state of Washington in 2018.
That figure jumps to $36.12 for the Seattle-Bellevue area alone.
Even with the expansion of the minimum wage, supported by Inslee, workers at the bottom of the pay ladder aren’t making enough to pay for the average two-bedroom apartment in the state, much less Seattle.
“The rents are just too high,” Baumgart said.
Efforts to expand the amount of affordable housing stock are largely local, but the governor has allocated money to support municipalities. Funding for the Housing Trust Fund, which pays for affordable housing throughout the state has increased from $106.6 million in 2013 when Inslee took office to $140 million in the proposed 2019-2021 biennial budget.
That’s still $60 million short of the figure the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA) pushed for in the 2019-2021 biennial budget, said Rachael Myers, WLIHA’s executive director.
“His budget this year, while it doesn’t have everything that we want, I’m pretty sure it has more funding on homelessness than any proposed budget has ever had,” Myers said.
While Inslee has advocated for resources that would impact the homelessness crisis in Washington such as money for affordable housing and reforms to the behavioral health system, he has not taken a public stand on the crisis.
When then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared a state of emergency around homelessness, Inslee did not follow suit.
The governor’s powers under a state of emergency are limited, Baumgart said.
“Unlike at the local level, his limitations are pretty tight,” Baumgart said. “His declaring it doesn’t provide access to other things.”
Without the ability to follow through, a declaration of emergency doesn’t hold much weight, said Misha Werschkul, executive director of the Washington Budget and Policy Center.
“The question we always focus on is, ‘Is it being followed up with the investment, dollars to make that real?’” Werschkul said. “It doesn’t help anyone who is homeless to have someone on the front pages saying, ‘This is an emergency.’”
Inslee’s presidential bid is a longshot. The field is crowded with politicians who have a national platform. While it’s impossible to say anything definitive about the 2020 race this early on, polling analysis website Five Thirty Eight found that Inslee had the least name recognition among 18 Democrats ranked in mid-February.
Washington’s 2020 gubernatorial election is synced with the presidential contest, and it’s unclear at this point whether Inslee will make a bid to keep his current job if his presidential prospects look dim. Whoever takes office in Olympia will have to make housing and homelessness a top priority, Myers said.
“I would like to see everyone running for governor in 2020 come out with a platform on how to reduce homelessness and make housing more affordable,” Myers said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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