Homelessness in Walla Walla Valley is issue needing attention, action

By:  Noah Leavitt
Source: Walla-Walla Union Bulletin

At a recent City Council meeting, Walla Walla Mayor Allen Pomraning declared May 16 -22 as Affordable Housing Week. He also noted the connection between decreasing affordable housing in our city and persistent homelessness, two separate but related challenges our community faces. 

The timing could not have been more appropriate, as the mayor shared new data that demonstrate a vital need to devote more understanding to and action on this topic.   

First, recent studies have found each $100 increase in median rent results in a 39 percent increase in homelessness in rural communities such as Walla Walla, a correlation which is particularly worrisome when we appreciate the shocking 23 percent increase in rent in our county just between 2015 and 2016. (As a result of this trend, the Association of Washington Cities joined the Washington State Association of Counties and others to declare homelessness and affordable housing as a critical priority for the recent and upcoming state legislative sessions.)

 Second, last year, out of close to 21,000 families in Walla Walla County, nearly 2,000 of them were deemed “housing insecure” because they are spending more than half of their income on rent and utilities, which is unsustainable for these households. 

Additional data not included in the city’s proclamation further underscores the need to prioritize this topic. 

An investigation that Community Council carried out this year in partnership with the Washington State Budget and Policy Center found higher rates of economic hardship in the Valley compared to the state as a whole with trends continuing in this grim direction. 

In response to our growing challenge, earlier this month U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell convened a round-table at the VA about housing insecurity in our community as part of her national effort to increase attention on the dwindling affordable housing stock. 

The Union-Bulletin’s coverage of that important visit noted that shockingly, “Walla Walla County has the biggest gap in affordable housing in the state — only eight low-cost rentals are available for every 100 income-eligible renters, according to the Washington Department of Commerce.”  

At that round-table Mayor Pomraning observed that our community appears to be moving in a precarious direction.

“We are removing affordable housing from our base, one permit at a time,” he observed, due to accelerated new construction and upgrading current housing stock. “As the economy recovers, this is an unintended consequence.”  

Moreover, as the U-B correctly noted, “a tight housing market means landlords can choose whom they want to rent to.” 

The challenges are many and no single solution can solve our predicament. In one way of looking at the situation, it might be considered a victory simply to preserve the affordable housing that currently exist, let alone build more. But that’s clearly not enough.

Cantwell’s sensible approach offers one avenue of possible relief. Cantwell wants to expand the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a program that has helped pay for 2.9 million low-cost rental units since 1986. Even if that passes, though, it will not solve all the problems.  

In addition to federal investment, we have to look toward locally driven and locally-developed sustainable solutions, with the business community, government, the nonprofit sector, and philanthropies together creating ways to expand our affordable housing stock as identified in the Walla Walla County Five-Year Homeless Housing Plan, adopted in September 2015.  

In an effort to share what is happening in our community on the related topics of a shrinking affordable housing and homelessness, the Walla Walla Council on Homelessness is hosting a public education event and resource fair Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the Housing Authority’s gym on Cayuse Street titled “Homelessness in Walla Walla: Its Main Causes and Our Community’s Responses.” We invite all area residents to join us for an hour to learn more about what is happening and ways to become involved. 

A second key area of opportunity is working with private sector partners to better address their needs when it comes to creating affordable housing. The Council on Homelessness is working to understand what opportunities developers and landlords see that would help them build and rent to tenants with lower incomes.  

 Finally, the process of local cities and the county updating their respective comprehensive plans in coming months provides opportunity to examine planning and zoning requirements to ensure our ability to be a community that meets the needs of our residents at all income levels. 

We look forward to robust public involvement in all of these important and needed efforts. Please join us!

 Noah Leavitt serves as chairman of the Walla Walla Council on Homelessness.