Despite what many people believe, affordable housing and homelessness are issues that affect Edmonds. That was the message delivered by speakers during a well-attended forum on low-income housing at the Edmonds Library’s Plaza Room Monday night.
Typically, homelessness is equated with communities like Everett and Lynnwood, along with surrounding rural areas where tent encampments are visible, said Mark Smith, executive director of Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County, adding that “we rarely think of that as an Edmonds sort of problem.”
However, Smith added, there is little doubt that Edmonds needs low-income housing in the city. “I can tell you it is an Edmonds sort of problem,” he said. “Down here in the Edmonds Bowl, you don’t see homelessness, you don’t see a lot of poor people, mentally ill, drug addicts, single mothers with children on the street fleeing domestic violence,” he said. “You do see them on Aurora and in areas of Edmonds that aren’t down here in the Bowl. It’s a problem that stretches countywide.”
Smith was the moderator for “Who Needs Low Income Housing in Edmonds? What’s Next?” The event was presented — in cooperation with the City of Edmonds — by the Edmonds Housing Instability Coalition (EHIC), a group of Edmonds citizens dedicated to bringing awareness of the need for low-income housing in Edmonds.
EHIC’s Dorothy Trinen began the evening by introducing the panelists for the event — representatives from three organizations that provide low-income housing and services in the local area: Chris Collier, Executive Director for the Alliance for Housing Affordability of Snohomish County, Mary Anne Dillon-Bryant, Regional Director for the YWCA Snohomish County, and Elizabeth Kohl, Director of Social Services at Housing Hope.
The first question posed to the panel was: “What do you want the citizens of Edmonds to learn about low-income housing needs here in Edmonds?” Collier responded that people need to know that “It’s a supply-and-demand issue. A lot of people are moving to Snohomish County and King County and the number of housing units are not increasing in kind.”
A rising housing demand, without a significant increase in supply, has led to steep hikes in rental prices. From 2015 to 2017, the price of a two-bedroom, one-bath rental in Edmonds increased from $975 a month to $1225 per month. This increase has pushed over 46 percent of Edmonds renters into a situation where they pay more than 30 percent — often much more than 30 percent — of their monthly income for rent.
Collier said this is a dangerous situation. “When you get to that point, you have to start making choices about basic needs — food, transportation, health care, to say nothing about saving for kid’s college or retirement,” he said. “If you miss a paycheck due to sickness or a family emergency you can get in a really bad situation very quickly, and end up homeless.”
The solution, Collier said, is more housing supply. “You have a choice, he said. “Maintain the status quo — and make Edmonds more unaffordable for your kids, and yourselves as you get older, or increase the housing supply in places that make sense.”
Collier identified several ways that Edmonds can increase the low-income housing in the area.
- Focus on transit oriented development — build more units around transit centers and lines like Highway 99. This also reduces the number of cars on the road and helps with traffic.
- Give multi-family tax exemptions or fee waivers to developers who reserve 20 percent of their units for low-income individuals or families.
- Have more accessory dwelling units, such as mother-in-law apartments.
- Allow smaller lots to support more lower-cost starter homes.
- Increase affordable home ownership programs.
Helping people earn higher wages so they can afford housing is another solution. Mary Anne Dillon-Bryant from the YWCA said that for a person with two children to afford rent for a two-bedroom apartment, they need to be working 3.5 full-time minimum wage jobs, or have job where they make $29.25 per hour. “The cost of housing has outpaced the job market,” she said.
Focusing her remarks in this area, Housing Hope Social Services Director Elizabeth Kohl said it’s critical to “Help people get employed and better education so they can afford the market as housing costs go up.” Kohl told the story of one of her employees who was living on the streets with her boyfriend and baby. She received help from programs at Housing Hope and now works for the organization. However, even though the employee and her husband both work full-time, “they still can’t afford market rate housing,” said Kohl, noting that the woman grew up in Edmonds, but can’t afford to live in Edmonds. She is going back to school, hoping to make more money so someday she can live unsubsidized, Kohl said.
But while education clearly is important, Mark Smith said that there will always be a need for subsidized housing. “There are some people who are never going to get back into the work force. Do we find them housing or do we let them die on the streets?” he asked. Smith pointed out that these are not just chronic alcoholics and drug users, but include the frail elderly — people 62 or older with a disabling condition — and other groups.
Much of the focus during an audience question-and-answer session was on Highway 99. Edmonds City Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas said the Highway 99 area is “the key for us as a city for affordable housing. It’s transit-oriented development. It’s got stores and medical personnel nearby. It’s a great place for us to do something different and actually get people housed in a thoughtful manner.” Fraley-Monillas also pointed out that rents will be much more affordable on Highway 99 than in other parts of Edmonds.
Mary Anne Dillon-Bryant seconded the benefits of locating low-income housing around a major transit corridor like Highway 99. “A lot of the families we work with benefit from being on a major bus line, major arterial,” she said. “Families can get around easier to get to the doctor and their jobs. It’s easier for a family who may not have a car.”
Bill Anderson, representing Edmonds Lutheran Church, located a block from Highway 99, said that the church is working with the Edmonds City Council, COMPASS Housing Alliance, and Lutheran Social Services to develop housing on the “east acre” of the property. Anderson asked citizens to talk to the mayor and the Edmonds City Council about rezoning the Aurora corridor for higher density, so the project can build 50 or 60 housing units, instead of the 20 or 30 units allowed by current zoning.
Another topic of discussion was finding funding for affordable housing and programs, and that with less federal funding, state and local governments and communities must carry more of the load. This will be a challenge for communities like Edmonds, but Elizabeth Kohl observed that the city and its residents are “going to pay for it one way or another.”
“If people don’t have housing they are more likely to commit crime,” she said. “You are going to pay police officers and for jail time. They are also going to end up in hospitals a lot more often. Do you want to invest in criminal justice system and pay more for medical, or do you want to build housing to stabilize people so they aren’t creating those issues for you?”
Chris Collier closed the evening with a final thought about the issue of housing affordability and the people who are affected by unaffordable homes and become homeless. “This is us,” Collier said. “This is not the other. This is not someone from somewhere else. This is someone who grew up in our community and became homeless in our community because our community is no longer livable.”
Explaining that he wasn’t speaking just of Edmonds, but the entire West Coast, Collier asked the audience to remember that “this is our problem — it’s not someone else’s problem, and it’s up to us to do something about it and to consider how much we want to do about it.”
More information about the Edmonds Housing Instability Coalition can be found on their Facebook page.
— Story and photos by Michael McAuliffe
Michael McAuliffe can be reached at www.mtmcauliffe.com