The eye of the housing storm

As officials on all sides of the homelessness debate express optimism about shelter and supportive housing capacity, new data showing hundreds of households skipping bills and groceries to cover rent costs suggests the crisis is far from over.

As officials on all sides of the homelessness debate express optimism about shelter and supportive housing capacity, new data showing hundreds of households skipping bills and groceries to cover rent costs suggests the crisis is far from over.

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Camp Hope, the most visible and controversial symptom of the housing crisis in Spokane, has captured the vast majority of political and media focus in the community and across the region. With focus on competing narratives about building shelter and supportive housing capacity to shrink the region’s unhoused population as it exists today, very little attention has been given to the factors that might be increasing homelessness.

As years of stagnant wages, record-breaking housing inflation and more recent consumer inflation bring working-class families living closer and closer to the edge, a new survey of nearly 1,500 households across Spokane County suggests there are thousands of families in danger of losing housing. It illustrates an interwoven, precarious set of economic pressures and community dynamics that seems to demand a multi-faceted response to keeping people housed well beyond the patchwork that has been provided by COVID-19 emergency funds and time-limited eviction dispute resolution programs.

The survey, conducted in November, captured just under a thousand renters ranging from young single people to large families to elderly people living on fixed incomes. The results give the deepest look to date at how working-class people are managing after nearly three years of pandemic uncertainty and spiraling housing costs — a period of time that saw Spokane experience the highest rent inflation in Washington, and even the entire United States.

The report contains a mix of data and personal narrative written by the respondents. In aggregate, the data paints a picture of serious financial need across the rental spectrum. Many of the individual stories are heartbreaking. “Trying to raise 5 kids and make ends meet is hard,” wrote a single parent who reported household income between $20,000 and $34,999 per year. “I work 40 hours a week and still can’t pay all my bills.”

For many, deferring costs like vehicle maintenance to make rent today means living with the dread of facing an even more dire situation down the road. “I have a complex and medically fragile special needs kiddo and our Suburban is on its last leg,” wrote a parent making between $35,000 and $49,999 per year. “[I] have no idea how we will get her wheelchair around if and when it breaks down.”

The survey also captured people who fit the definition of homeless, but who aren’t currently on the streets or in the shelter system. “I am basically couch surfing,” wrote a person who said they haven’t been able to find affordable housing at their current wage range of under $35,000 a year.

These stories are not isolated.

Of the 985 renters polled, 750 of them (about 76%), said they are struggling to pay rent this month, or will be struggling in the next couple months. 80% of respondents reported skipping bills or groceries in the last 6 months to make ends meet. Nearly 60% — more than 560 households — reported income shortfalls so severe that they had to take out a loan to pay rent.

Jene Ray, who led creation of the survey in her role as Associate Director of The ZoNE at Northeast Community Center, said the vast majority of respondents struggling to get by are employed, putting them into a category the United Way calls “ALICE” — asset-limited, income-constrained, employed — meaning they have jobs, but their income doesn’t quite stretch, and they don’t have capital assets like real estate or stock holdings that wealthier people can leverage during personal crises like a layoff (or national crises like a once-in-a-century pandemic).

ALICE families sit in a hinterland above the poverty line but below median income earners with more stable living situations. “As long as everything stays stable, they’ll make it,” Ray says, “But if a car breaks down or whatever, then they slip into poverty.”

In Northeast Spokane during the pandemic, Ray says several of these families — “hardworking, blue-collar families just living paycheck to paycheck” — moved in with each other. That helped with expenses, but created other unexpected problems. Even with school-issued laptops, so many kids were living in some of those houses and trying to attend virtual class at once, the home internet would crash. Organizers brought in mobile hotspots to those houses and set up a pop-up learning center at Northeast Community Center (NECC) to help bridge logistical hurdles.

It illustrates how, as housing costs and consumer inflation rose throughout the pandemic, those ALICE families started looking a lot more like families below the poverty line — one bad break away from catastrophe; one catastrophe away from homelessness.

ALICE numbers for Spokane haven’t been updated since before the pandemic, but Ray says the NECC survey puts data to what she and her colleagues have seen on the ground: a widening group of formerly stable families sinking closer to the ALICE threshold and a narrower path to avoid falling completely into poverty. “Now, you know, it’s not just the traditional poverty demographic that we have,” she says, “It’s all of those lower middle-income families slipping into poverty — and poverty causes homelessness.”

The survey comes at a key inflection point for many of these families, as pandemic rental assistance funds dry up or are lost due to mismanagement,  rental assistance portals stop taking new applications and the state considers funding priorities for its next two-year budget when the legislature convenes in January. Meanwhile, the state’s two-year mandatory Eviction Resolution Pilot Program (ERPP) staved off evictions for as many as 200 survey respondents alone, but the program will sunset in June 2023, unless it’s made permanent.

The scale of the crisis

Northeast Community Center conducted the survey in November with money from the City of Spokane’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) fund. According to Ray, the city gave NECC wide latitude to design the survey as they saw fit, as long as the results could answer two expansive questions:

  • What is the ongoing unmet rental assistance need?
  • Where are people getting information about services from eviction mediation to income supplements? And is that information accurate?

“This was really aimed at those who have no control over the cost of their housing,” Ray said, “[people whose] rent can go up at any time.”

To reach as many renters as possible, Ray and her colleagues at NECC and The ZoNE, leveraged relationships with Spokane Public Schools and 24 community organizations that work on housing. Because funding came from the city and because services tend to be concentrated where need and population is greatest, the majority of responses came from traditionally working-class neighborhoods in the city of Spokane. The survey also captured 133 renters living outside Spokane city limits.

According to census data from July 2021, Spokane County had 227,877 housing units, and an owner-occupancy rate of 63.6%, suggesting that around 83,000 households across the county rent. Because the survey didn’t seek to capture a representative sample of all of Spokane, it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions about renting households across the entire community.

Drilling down into three key zip codes, though — 99207, 99201 and 99216 — where the survey returned its highest concentrations of people, helps contour the similarities and differences of how this precarity is playing out in the lives of working-class and working-poor people.

Of those three zip codes, only 99207 — comprising most of the Logan, Bemis and Hillyard neighborhoods in Northeast Spokane — has a majority of owner-occupied homes, but the area still has over 6,300 households who rent, and median household income of less than $47,000 according to — about 73% of the metro average and under the $50,000 threshold where many survey respondents reported acute difficulties making ends meet. If survey numbers hold across this neighborhood, that’s over 3,500 people who fear eviction and over 1,900 who have received an eviction notice in those neighborhoods alone. And though this area has been a major node of modest, working class home-ownership for over a century — a place where families could build stability over generations — home prices have more than doubled in under 5 years, leaving future home-ownership prospects for similar families in doubt.  

In the Spokane Valley zip code, incomes are higher (about 88% of the metro average), but more people rent as well (54%), meaning a greater proportion of those higher wages are being gobbled up by the area’s record housing inflation. Much of the housing inflation during the pandemic was driven by people moving to the area. The conventional wisdom has suggested that the buying power of migrants from wealthier cities is pricing out people who have lived  in the area for decades.

In at least one case, though, a two-income family who moved to Spokane Valley from Indiana has struggled with rents that are more than double what they’re used to paying, and represent at least half their family income. “We’re paying $2,000 for a duplex!” they wrote. “… we’re doing our best to make ends meet which means our kids don’t get to see us together because we’re always working.”

The data looks especially dire in 99201, which covers most of West Central as well as downtown west of Division and north of I-90. Those neighborhoods house just over 14,000 people — less than half of Northeast Spokane — but the $31,313 median income is less than half the metro average too, according to Census Reporter. Compounding the problem, 73% of people rent, and the neighborhood contains a dizzying mix of million-dollar condos and multi-thousand-dollar apartments in Kendall Yards and the downtown core in close proximity to what was, until very recently, some of the most affordable housing in the entire region. A snapshot of the rental market taken from Zillow puts the median rent in these areas at $1,167 per month or just over $14,000 per year. That means a family making the median income in that area would expect to pay almost 45% of their earnings toward a median rent, and likely more if they have children.

Spending 30% of household income has long been seen as a healthy target balance between the housing market and the job market. Once housing costs reach 50% of household income or above, those households are classified as “highly distressed.” In neighborhoods like West Central, then, housing price increases and meager household incomes are making highly distressed lives the norm.

On Tuesday, Patrick Jones, director of Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis published a blog noting that, across Spokane County, 23% of renting households find themselves in that highly distressed category.

That’s over 19,000 households — almost 10% of all households in the county — paying more for rent than all other aspects of their lives combined.

Households on the brink

The NECC report includes dozens of self-reported accounts of rental hardship In addition to the data collected. The survey was anonymous, and the survey team pegged these stories to the household income range people reported. Several stories illustrate how, even when income stays consistent, factors outside of renters control can push them to the brink.

One elderly person broke down their household expenses:

“My current income after Medicare deduction is $879 monthly. Rent now is $471. Utilities (gas, electricity, phone) $208.00. I am concerned that I will not be able to pay my way very soon. I am 86 years old and live alone.”

One family lost its housing after their landlord decided to sell the property they lived in during the peak of the housing crisis. “We were lucky to even get into [another] rental,” they wrote, but their rent went from $1,325 a month to $2,200, a 60% increase. Now they trade off months paying bills late to ensure they never miss a rent payment. “What we forgo the most are proper clothes, shoes, supplies and groceries. We depend on local food banks.”

In the survey, the renter wrote that their household earns between $35,000 and $49,999 a year. “I have a good job,” they conclude, “It should not be this hard to get by.”

Ironically, it also seems that wages paid to some of the social services sector employees working to keep people off the streets are putting those workers in danger of losing their own housing. “I am a Case Manager working to house individuals experiencing homelessness. It does not pay a living wage,” wrote one respondent. “I have not been able to pay my electricity in several months.”

The person said they had received rental assistance funds in 2021, but this year “no rental assistance programs have been available.”

Jene Ray said her family, too, struggled after her husband lost his job during the pandemic. “We took loans from my aunt during COVID to pay rent.” Given what she has seen other families go through in the last few years, Ray says she feels lucky to have been able to lean on family.

The survey data suggests, even among people who are struggling themselves, family and community support is a two way street. In addition to the 60% of people who took a loan to cover costs, over 53% of city residents and just under 47% of county residents reported providing financial assistance to a parent, older child or extended family member

This mutual aid illustrates a sort of double-edged sword: both the power of community and familial bonds, but also the precariousness of the entire system, and how financial woes in one household might lead to cascading hardships throughout extended families.

Given the income levels of many of the respondents, those who haven’t been able to give or receive help from family would likely be forced to take out high-interest payday loans, Ray said.

Payday lending is regulated in Washington, making it less predatory than in other states, but interest on these short-term loans can still top 15%. And when the need for that loan in the first place is a widening gap between stagnant wages and growing cost of living, Ray said, “That’s a spiral you can’t get out of.”

2022 Housing Security Findings by RANGE on Scribd

Help on the way (maybe)

As working-class people feel the economic crunch, programs both local and statewide could help alleviate some of the burdens renters face. On Monday, the Spokane city council voted to use $4 million in American Rescue Plan funding to eliminate past due city utility bills for low-income households. That number is part of a larger $8 million package of utility-relief for city residents supported by a combination of federal and state dollars.

While programs that eliminate old bills can help people get back to square one, it doesn’t do much going forward. Gov. Jay Inslee is proposing more proactive measures to tackle Washington’s housing crisis. The budget he released this week outlines major increases in spending on housing construction across the state including capital funding for 2,200 new housing units and a $4 billion referendum that adds 5,300 additional units in the next two years and 19,000 housing units by 2031.

“Our traditional systems for funding housing take an incremental approach, but if there was ever a time we need to move faster, it’s now,” Inslee wrote in a post on Medium. “Homelessness and housing shortages are burdening every community in Washington. We can’t wait decades to build, we need housing now or the numbers of people sliding into homelessness will grow.”

The legislature is working on its own budget priorities and the governor’s budget will be subject to the scrutiny of the legislature when it begins its bi-annual long budget session in January. Even if transformational housing dollars are passed, funding doesn’t immediately turn into actual housing units. The process can take years, and with the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program set to expire at the beginning of July and much of the federally funded COVID rental assistance dried up, even a best-case scenario leaves a lot of room for worry for working families.

On Friday afternoon, Spokane state senator Andy Billig, who was recently re-elected State Senate Majority Leader, said he and his colleagues aren’t far enough along in the process to know what their budget will look like, but that he would check with the housing budget leads.

While ERPP seems to have been quite successful in staving off evictions in the City of Spokane, many county residents who responded to the survey hadn’t even heard of the program. Billig said that uneven deployment mirrors what he heard statewide from colleagues.

“It seems like the results of that pilot have been mixed from county to county,” He said, “there will be an effort to continue it, but probably with some changes.”

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