Housing, homelessness loom large in the minds of Washington voters

Tacoma, Spokane and Bellingham each have ballot measures on these issues, and both voters and candidates have cited them as top priorities.

Pickets hold signs urging people to vote for Inititiave 1, including one sign that says "Billionaire landlords shouldn't make teachers homeless."

Demonstrators support Initiative 1 during a protest by Tacoma for All against the eviction of Tacoma substitute teacher Cathy Pick outside the Lakeside Landing Apartments in Tacoma on Sept. 27, 2023. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

This story originally appeared in the Washington State Standard.

An expensive mayoral race in Spokane in which candidates are fighting over vastly different approaches to solving homelessness. A proposed Seattle levy that could pay for more affordable housing across the city. Ballot initiatives in Tacoma and Bellingham that could protect tenants from steep rent increases and evictions. 

Housing shortfalls and homelessness hang heavy over this year’s Nov. 7 election. And how voters cast their ballots will help determine future responses by local governments across the state in both areas. Neither issue is new to the region, but that may be why they’re commanding so much attention from voters.

“These are the same issues that have been on the agenda for the last several years,” pollster H. Stuart Elway said. “Voters don’t perceive a lot of progress in dealing with them.”

Yearly statewide polls by Crosscut-Elway, going back to 2019, have found that the biggest issue voters think the Legislature should address has consistently been homelessness.

Public safety and policing have also risen to the top of voters’ minds, Elway said. 

In a KOMO News-Strategies 360 poll conducted in late September, 82% of registered voters surveyed in Seattle said homelessness is worse there than in other major American cities. The same share of respondents said housing availability and affordability is also worse than in other parts of the country.

Only 4% of respondents said the city’s current approach on homelessness was the right one.

Seven City Council seats, including four without an incumbent, are up for grabs in Seattle this year.  

A Crosscut-Elway poll conducted in August shows 68% of likely voters in the city said homelessness was their top issue in the election. Two years ago, 80% of likely voters said the same.

Erik Houser, managing director of external affairs at We Are In, a King County organization that advocates for homelessness solutions, said homelessness remains “very salient” across the state.

“Homelessness can be very visible in people’s lives,” Houser said.

‘Extremely different visions’

In Spokane, mayoral incumbent Nadine Woodward and challenger Lisa Brown, a former Democratic state Senate majority leader and prior state commerce director, have continued to clash over how they want to address homelessness in Spokane. The city in recent years has faced unprecedented homelessness, including one of the state’s largest encampments, Camp Hope, which grew to more than 600 residents before state and local authorities closed it earlier this year. 

During her time leading the Department of Commerce, Brown regularly disagreed with Woodward over how best to address the growing encampment. 

Now, as candidates looking to lead the city, both are criticizing the other for how they have each spent time and money to fight homelessness, and are presenting their own strategies for getting more people housed.

For instance, Brown is willing to consider a “safe parking” program that would create a parking lot in the city where it is legal for people sleeping in their cars to stay overnight. Woodward disapproves, saying this could enable situations similar to Camp Hope.

Woodward points to a new temporary shelter in Spokane, which she helped establish, as a success in her fight to end homelessness, but Brown believes the shelter has been ineffective and expensive. She says a better solution would be to have smaller facilities, like tiny homes, to help people transition out of homelessness. 

“The candidates present extremely different visions,” Houser said. 

Money is pouring into the race, with Brown raising nearly $494,000 and Woodward raising more than $544,000 as of Oct. 24 – both totals more than any other candidate in Spokane has ever raised.

Voters in Spokane will also vote on a ballot initiative that would prohibit encampments on any public property or near a park, child care facility or school. 

In Seattle, the City Council candidates are also divided over how to address homelessness, including the use of shelters and removing encampments. 

Seattle voters will also decide on a new property tax levy that could raise $970 million over seven years for affordable housing. In Crosscut-Elway’s September poll, 57% of respondents said they would definitely or probably vote for the tax hike.

With ballot initiatives in Tacoma and Bellingham, renter protections are on the table, an effort that advocates say could help keep more people in their homes. 

Tacoma’s initiative would require landlords to give six months’ notice of a rent increase and pay for relocation assistance for significant hikes. It would also prohibit evictions during cold weather, or during the school year if a tenant is a student. Bellingham’s initiative would require 120 days’ notice for rent increases. Landlords would also have to give some relocation assistance if they raise rent by 8% or more.

High stakes

Although voters will be deciding who should lead their local communities, the outcomes of this year’s local elections could have statewide repercussions, Houser said. Homelessness is fluid across city and county borders, he noted, meaning one jurisdiction’s policies can affect its neighbors.

“If you choose not to be part of the solution, everybody gets impacted,” he said. 

Many voters favor “fairly comprehensive” solutions to housing issues, ones that include temporary shelters, permanent housing and mental health services, according to Elway. But there are different views on the best paths forward.

In the September Crosscut-Elway poll, 41% of respondents supported moving people out of encampments and into temporary shelters, while 55% wanted more permanent housing and mental health services for people experiencing homelessness.

About 49% of respondents in the KOMO-Strategies 360 poll said policies should be tougher on Seattle’s unhoused population, while 37% said policies should be more sympathetic. 

Gregg Colburn, a University of Washington researcher who focuses on how housing and homelessness intertwine, said the stakes in this election are huge for housing policy.

Part of addressing homelessness is building more affordable housing to keep people in their homes, and local elected officials have a big say in where projects get built. 

“Who’s sitting in these seats will matter,” Colburn said.

This story originally appeared in the Washington State Standard.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Laurel Demkovich

Laurel Demkovich joined States Newsroom and Washington State Standard in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.