The Washington state legislature launched its 2022 legislative session on Jan. 10 with a flurry of bill introductions that could help shore up the social safety net and lay the policy groundwork to cut at the root causes of homelessness, all in a 60-day session.
The list of bills includes extensions for families on the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, more support for homeless students and young people in foster care, funding for schools facing enrollment declines due to COVID-19 and the opportunity to spend hundreds of millions of federal coronavirus relief funds to create and preserve affordable housing.
There are also a pair of bills in the House and Senate that would fundamentally overhaul land use in order to create a wider suite of housing options with an eye toward more housing production and lower costs, particularly in Washington’s largest cities.
The massive list of bills in the House and Senate also include conservative priorities such as reducing the threshold for police use of force, curbing the power of the governor during emergencies and prohibiting the government from imposing vaccine mandates.
To round out the coronavirus discourse, Republican lawmakers submitted bills that take aim at the public health messaging around vaccines and the virus by “recognizing the lasting immune protection resulting from recovery from COVID-19.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirm that infection-induced protection against the virus does exist but that some studies show that the vaccines were found to be much more effective.
The TANF extension bill (HB 1755) was requested by the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). It would allow the department to tie TANF extensions for low-income households to the state unemployment rate, allowing DSHS to give families benefits past the 60-month cutoff. If the bill passes as written, DSHS could continue to provide TANF cash grants to households if the state unemployment rate equals or exceeds 7 percent.
According to the state’s Employment Security Department, the state’s unemployment rate topped 8.9 percent in 2020 during the period between January and September.
TANF is a federal program administered at the state level to get money into the pockets of families in need. Many households who are eligible for the benefit do not receive it, however, the amount of aid provided under the program - until last year - hadn't been adjusted in decades, according to the Washington State Budget & Policy Center (BPC).
Reform for the program has been a goal of progressive organizations like BPC for years.
BPC and likeminded advocacy organizations are also pushing for more direct transfers of cash to low-income Washingtonians through tax credits or a budding plan for universal basic income. They see an opportunity to build on the success from the previous legislative session in funding the Working Families Tax Credit, a state version of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit that is more expansive and covers some undocumented households.
“I saw how powerful tax credits can be and how flexible cash can be. It creates a windfall, especially in the context of the federal tax filing,” said Emily Vyhnanek, the Working Families Tax Credit campaign manager for the BPC, during the organization’s legislative preview on Jan. 5.
Another bill aims to expand a pilot program that assists homeless students and youth in foster care in higher education. The pilot program asked the college board to select eight colleges to provide assistance to students experiencing homelessness and those who were in foster care when they graduated high school. HB 1601 would allow each community and technical college program to create such a program “subject to the availability of amounts appropriated for this specific purpose.”
In a report published in December 2020, nearly 20 percent of students at five community college campuses in Washington state reported experiencing homelessness.
Public school attendance is a hotly debated topic right now with impacted groups weighing the benefits of in-person learning with the dangers of the coronavirus. Less discussed, however, is the effect of declining school enrollment on finances.
Schools in Washington state receive much of their state funding based on the number of students enrolled. Declines in the student population over the course of the pandemic have hit schools’ pocketbooks at a time that they can least afford it.
The state offered stabilization funding in the 2020-21 school year — HB 1590 would extend that relief.
The legislature will also consider a set of options in the capital budget to create and preserve affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, enhanced shelters and shelters to meet the needs of specific populations in order to combat the ongoing homelessness crisis.
Inslee laid out a roughly $800 million plan in December that called for $334.7 million in “rapid capital housing” to buy up existing buildings to convert into new housing and shelters for people experiencing homelessness.
At the same time, a set of bills in the House and Senate would, if passed, make it much easier for communities to build more housing overall.
The bills are complex, but effectively, HB 1782 and SB 5670 aim to break the stranglehold of single-family zoning in urban areas, with more dramatic effects within a half-mile of transit stops.
Certain cities with 20,000 people or more would have to allow for all “middle housing types” defined by the bill on land currently zoned for single-family homes within a half mile of a transit stop. Crucially, they must also allow for duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes on all other lots zoned for single-family use.
Alternatively, cities — depending on their size — would need to allow an “average minimum density equivalent” of units per acre in urban growth areas. In Seattle, that would be 40 units per acre.
The majority of residential land in Seattle is zoned for single-family homes, making it near-impossible to increase density outside of specific areas, grow the number of units and use supply-side mechanisms to bring down the overall price of housing.
Other issues that the legislature floated include: “ghost guns” — HB 1705 would prohibit the manufacture, transport and sale of untraceable firearms; abortion — HB 1679 would prohibit medication-induced abortion while HB 1851 aims to protect the right and make bill language more inclusive of other gender identities; and the status of Bainbridge Island’s pickleball as the state’s official sport.
Because why not?
The short session will last for 60 days, and lawmakers will continue to meet remotely. Those interested in following specific bills can sign up for alerts at https://app.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/ and watch legislative sessions on the state’s TVW channel.
Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News.
Correction: The legislature increased aid provided under TANF in the previous legislative session. The newspaper regrets the error.
Read more of the Jan. 12-18, 2022 issue.