Spokane renters facing unpayable rent increases find little relief.
Moving boxes clutter the living room in Danyelle Robinson’s home. Amid the scattered belongings stands an easel, which Robinson uses to paint what she describes as “eclectic” paintings. For Robinson, a former journalist who advocates for sustainable communities, art is a way to process her thoughts and helps her focus. The easel also carries the memories of teaching her grandchildren to paint in her home when they were younger.
Sifting through a decade of household memories has been hard for Robinson: she’s leaving a place she once enjoyed but has come to loathe. And she can’t lift more than 15 to 20 pounds and struggles with balance and spinal issues related to a Teflon implant that is degrading inside her body.
While most of her house is in various states of packing disarray, Robinson knows exactly where to find an electric kettle and a wide variety of teas, offering hospitality in a home that she soon won’t be able to live in.
On April 1, Robinson will be homeless.
Rent at the North Spokane complex where Robinson lives has increased 70% since 2020 and has made it so she can no longer afford to live in the complex she has called home since 2014. “It had been a great place,” before the new property managers came in and increased rent and started changing policies, said Robinson. “I just feel relieved I’m getting out of here. It’s been hard.”
In 2020, Robinson’s rent was $875. By 2022, it was $1,075. In January of this year, she got notice that her rent would be $1,490 starting April 1 if she stayed on a month-to-month lease or 1,355 for an 11-month lease — a more than 54-70% increase in less than three years. That’s a big increase for anyone, but Robinson is on a fixed income, and relies on disability and rent vouchers to make ends meet.
Still, Robinson, who volunteers on the board of the Tenants Union of Washington State as its vice president, said she counts herself as one of the lucky ones: she has a new place lined up that will be ready in a few weeks, and she has a friend who’s letting her store her stuff in a horse trailer while she waits on that apartment. Robinson will have to couch surf for a few weeks, but then she’ll have a home again.
Others won’t be so lucky. And when they go looking for help, it may not be immediately clear where to turn. Spokane has many nonprofits that serve the homeless and housing insecure, but knowing how to get help in a time of need isn’t simple in what service providers described as a strained, piece-meal system for getting and staying in housing.
“It’s crazy. There’s so many people in that gap space where there’s no services,” said Sarah Lickfold, the executive director of Transitions, a nonprofit serving women and children that operates supportive housing sites and programs like job-training in Spokane. “There’s no two-week temporary housing for folks. There’s couch surfing, or shelters, or these situations that really folks shouldn’t be in.”
“It’s kind of an every-person-for-themselves-kind-of-a-thing,” Lickfold said. “We have a lot of great nonprofits in Spokane, but they’re full. There’s a definite gap for folks who are kind of teetering on the edge.”
The leading reason for homelessness
While homelessness is often portrayed as an issue related to mental health and addiction, situations like Robinson’s are the most common reason people become homeless in Spokane. In 2022, 59% of the 1,757 people experiencing homelessness in the Spokane-area reported lack of affordable housing as the primary reason they became homeless according to that year’s regional annual point-in-time count, a federally required survey of community homelessness.
While the point-in-time (PIT) count is the most comprehensive survey of homelessness in the community, it only captures the most visible portion of homelessness because it only surveys people who are living unsheltered or in the shelter system.
The PIT does not cover more subtle types of homelessness, like people who are couch surfing or who have doubled up in housing units — moving in with family or friends to share housing costs. It also doesn’t survey many rural areas of the county where homelessness and housing insecurity may be less visible, but still prevalent. A more comprehensive system used by Washington State estimates there are more than 5,200 people experiencing homelessness in Spokane County.
Higher rent, same income
The price jumps at Robinson’s complex coincided with the pandemic, and skyrocketing housing costs across Spokane and North Idaho as both people and investors from out of town took an interest in the market. Robinson’s building was purchased in November 2020 by Next Wave Investors, LLC, a Southern California-based private equity investment firm focused on apartment complexes in mid-sized cities in the Western U.S.
“We’ve been seeing it over the last few years, these big increases,” said Ami Manning, the Right-Of-Way Project Housing Director for the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium (SLIHC). Manning said that with persistent low vacancy rates, “landlords are taking advantage and raising rent and putting the squeeze on lots of folks.”
For Robinson, who is unable to work due to her spinal injury, there’s no way to pay for the increased rent. Housing vouchers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) only cover a set amount of the rent, her disability payment is fixed based on her prior work history and there aren’t other funding sources to make up that gap. That means she and any other tenants living on a fixed income can’t afford to stay in their housing as rent continues to rise.
Housing experts say people should only pay roughly one-third of their income toward housing, and that number is what the housing choice voucher program targets. Voucher amounts are set in the first year to cover enough of the rent that participants only have to pay 30-40% of their income on housing for the first year, explained Amanda Seybert, the housing program coordinator for the Spokane Housing Authority (SHA). “But after that first year, HUD doesn’t really have any guidance, so it can go up to whatever,” Seybert said.
As managers of the federal voucher program, SHA doesn’t have any say over how high rent increases can go, said Seybert, and when rent gets too high, vouchers can no longer be used at that property.
Sometimes, raising the rent enough that vouchers no longer cover it is the point. “I’ve been working in the housing field well over a decade,” Seybert said, “and during that time, I’ve seen many, many landlords find creative ways to edge out people who are on a voucher or whose rents are being subsidized through a multitude of other types of programs in the community. Unfortunately, it seems that they are getting more and more creative with their attorneys to try to find ways to do that.”
“I’m not saying that’s the case here with this property manager at this complex, but we do see it,” Seybert said.
Seybert said she also knows some property owners have had bad experiences with tenants on vouchers that have led them to stereotype voucher-recipients as bad tenants. Landlords might also avoid voucher programs because SHA conducts inspections before they’ll subsidize the rent.
“There is a higher standard that we request of landlords than maybe your average tenant who’s just desperate to have a house and keep the peace and is not gonna cause the same waves or have that same standard,” Seybert said.
But, there’s also benefits for landlords who keep their rent accessible to people on subsidized housing. “The pros to having a person with a voucher in a unit would be that there’s a guaranteed payment and also that we can help mitigate any sort of issues that might arise with their tenancy,” Seybert said. “If they do have a problem tenant, we step in and try to meet with the tenant and do mitigation, or, in the worst case scenario, encourage a tenant to get out or look at ramifications for their voucher if they choose to be a poor tenant.”
And though it won’t get established until next year, the new Spokane rental ordinance created a residential rental property mitigation program to help landlords pay for damages incurred by low-income tenants, as a supplement to the state and federal programs already in effect.
How tenants can get help
SHA’s waiting list to apply for housing vouchers has been closed since 2017 and remains closed indefinitely. For now, there are two main pathways for people to access housing assistance:
- Get on the waitlist for project-based vouchers, which are periodically available and are in specific affordable housing buildings and developments.
- Get referred to a housing voucher through the coordinated entry process, which runs through the city and is administered for single adults by Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners (SNAP) and for couples or families by Catholic Charities Eastern Washington.
The coordinated entry process serves as a sort of triage system for housing accessibility. Initially, service providers try to connect people with resources to keep them from needing to utilize the homeless system.
“We try in Spokane to be a diversion-first type system, where we first have a conversation with the household about what’s going on and what are their natural supports, and basically how can we support them without having them enter that formalized homeless response system,” said Shannon Boniface, the managing director or crisis response for Catholic Charities Eastern Washington, and a member of the Spokane Regional Continuum of Care Board.
They’ll recommend people find ways to get by with family or friends and also work with landlords to avoid homelessness by doing mediation or setting up payment plans.
If that initial step doesn’t work, people go through an assessment that looks at how vulnerable they are based on several factors like history of homelessness, domestic violence and mental health challenges. That assessment generates a “score” that determines who is a priority for services and what services they will get connected with.
Then, as resources become available, housing and service providers work to connect people from the list to housing and other supports based on their score.
“So, folks who don’t have kids and they’re not in a domestic violence situation, they don’t have substance use disorder — they get put down to the bottom of the list because their issues aren’t as imminent,” Lickfold said. “It makes sense in one way and then kind of is depressing in another way.”
While the calculus of helping the most needy has an inherent logic, it also means that people who have lower needs now may continue to slide through the cracks and eventually end up in higher need categories. “I think it’d be great if the community would spend more on prevention,” Lickfold said. “It’s like your health, you’ve got to spend a little bit ahead of time for your long term health to be better.”
“Right now, in our community, we don’t have a lot of funding tied to diversion,” Boniface said. “That’s one of the things that’s lacking in our system.”
During the height of the pandemic, there was more funding for these intermediate interventions that helped people before they lost housing, but a lot of that support has dried up. “We’re not necessarily any less needy, but we don’t have these additional funding resources to support the need,” Boniface said .
For people at risk of losing housing, the main advice housing providers have is to continue working with any services you’re already connected with. “The path of least resistance is going to be seeking help with any agency you’re already connected with,” Seybert said. “Many agencies are overwhelmed right now due to the pandemic and the multitude of other things and needs.”
“If they’re a voucher holder or participants of (SHA), they’re always welcome to come in and connect with us and our landlord liaison,” Seybert. “If they are neither of those things and they don’t have a current resource I would recommend they reach out to the Tenants Union here locally to see what sort of assistance may be available.”
People who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of losing housing can also contact SNAP (if single) or Catholic Charities (couples and families) to access services through the coordinated entry system.
We need more housing
No matter how diligently individual people pursue those services, though, there simply aren’t enough homes in Spokane to guarantee people can get connected to — or stay in — housing.
“There’s not a secret stash of affordable housing in Spokane,” Manning said. “Agencies can band together and see what we can come up with. But, the truth is there’s not enough units out there that are affordable that would meet the voucher standard and be able to pass an inspection.”
“We could help people move out of expensive units that they’re already in all day, but if we don’t have affordable housing for them to go to we are sunk,” said SHA’s Seybert. “So, we really need continued development of affordable housing, continued zoning changes that will allow development of affordable and multi-family housing, and for those buildings to go up miraculously quickly.”
Robinson said that she’d like to see more action from the city that pushes the needle on affordable housing and protects people from being priced out of housing like she has been. “I understand that they have been making some progress in little areas,” like the landlord-tenant ordinance passed in late-February. “But when the big areas are being blown up, those little pieces don’t flippin’ count,” Robinson said.
“We have to do something about the housing situation — more affordable housing” she said. “They’re making marginal steps forward when everything else is just, I mean, it’s just ridiculous.”
“I could find the right places [to get resources], but a lot of them couldn’t help me,” Robinson said. “I don’t know how anybody is getting anything.”
“You have to rely on family and friends right now, I think there’s just no other way.”
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