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For Homeless Advocates, The Most 'Stellar' Legislative Session In Recent Memory

Tents occupied by people who are homeless in downtown Seattle

Activists and officials on the front lines of the fight against homelessness in Washington say they just had their most successful legislative session in recent history.

Human services providers and affordable housing advocates say 2018 was the year that broke a logjam on homelessness in Olympia, shaking loose millions of dollars in funding and new tenant-friendly laws.

"It is the stellar year," said Michele Thomas, who leads advocacy efforts for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. "And we hope that we can replicate it in future years."

Advocates are celebrating:  

- A two-year capital budget with $107 million for nonprofit developers to build an estimated 3,000 units of affordable housing.

- A law banning landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants who receive government assistance, known as source-of-income discrimination. 

- A $22 hike in a fee for real-estate documents known as the document recording fee, estimated to raise $26 million a year for services aiding people who are homeless.

- A spate of other laws that expand benefits and protections, including one mandating the state to ensure by 2020 no young person is discharged from foster care or juvenile detention into homelessness.

State studies have shown that 36 percent of people who leave foster care at 18 are homeless with a year. The same goes for a quarter of young people leaving juvenile rehabilitation. 

Thomas, who fought to ban source-of-income discrimination for a decade, said the Democratic takeover of the Washington State Senate opened the door for such laws to pass in 2018.

The shift in leadership swept lawmakers passionate about new housing policies and investments into positions of influence.

"There is a lot of housing champions both in the House and in the Senate, but a lot of their bills never got to make it through the Senate chamber," Thomas said. "Many of them were not even given a hearing last year. And this year was really different.”

Advocates say it helped that some have been laying groundwork in Olympia for decades.

"I don’t think there’s ever been as much progress on these issues as there was this particular year," said Seth Dawson, a lobbyist who has worked for human services groups in Washington since 1995. "And part of that is because of all the efforts by many people over the last 10, 15 years.”

He also said advocates were able to reach deals with landlords on some issues, including the ban on source-of-income discrimination. In that case, lawmakers agreed to create a "mitigation program" to reimburse landlords up to $5,000 if property is damaged by tenants covered by the law.

Lawmakers are also facing pressure from some constituents to solve increasingly visible homelessness and escalating housing costs in Washington.

A 2017 survey of people who are homeless found nearly 8,600 people living on the streets or in encampments across the state, a 1 percent increase over the prior year.

In spite of those forces, housing advocates suffered one major legislative disappointment in 2018.

One law would have allowed counties, and in some cases cities, to hold onto a portion of the state sales tax and use it to construct housing with built-in services, geared toward people who have been homeless the longest and are the hardest to help.

It failed. But Thomas said it's something to fight for next year.

“What we’ve accomplished this year is tremendous, but it’s not enough," she said. "So we will be coming back in 2019 with an ambitious agenda.”

Will James reports on ideology, covering how information spreads, how beliefs form, and how those beliefs interact with the real world.