"Houses in Spokane are so affordable!" is a frequent exclamation when praising our city. The invariable response goes something like "Shhhh, don't let the outsiders in on our secret!" While such refrains make middle class folks feel good about the stake we've claimed in this beautiful place, they also encourage us to ignore the need to improve affordable housing availability for the many low-income families who already struggle to survive here.
Mounting real estate pressures on the West Coast, and even in the tourist and vacation-home boomtowns to the east, have already begun to send a steady stream of housing refugees our way. If land and housing prices become inflated before the right public policies are in place, the meager public funds available for affordable housing will continue to be too little, too late. This is a problem that must be addressed before middle class voters begin to feel the squeeze. If we are not ready to balance new market-driven development with the pressing need to increase our affordable housing supply, we may miss out on a one-time opportunity to improve the economic integration and long-term stability of our neighborhoods.
For the hundreds of thousands of Spokane County residents living at or under 180 percent of the federal poverty level, we are already in the midst of an affordability crisis. According to "Missing the Foundation," a report published by the Spokane Regional Health District, more than half of all renters and one in three households are already paying more than a third of their income for housing every month. When housing takes up more than 30 percent of monthly income, it becomes difficult to meet basic needs, prevents the possibility of building up savings accounts, and can put families one paycheck or illness away from homelessness. In fact, the lack of affordable housing is a top contributing factor to local homelessness, ranking above mental health, physical disabilities or drug and alcohol abuse issues.
Some people think society has no duty to ensure housing affordability. Instead, they believe that widespread suffering is the only way to motivate people to lift themselves out of the misery of poverty. Not only has this not worked, it flies in the face of what science tells us about behavior change, and ignores the basic reality that even if everyone could get a job, there would still be more people in need of affordable housing than units available on the market. We must make it a priority to build a city where everyone who works can afford to meet their basic housing needs. Without the promise of the ability to live with a basic modicum of dignity, people are forced into a cycle of desperation and despair.
Spokane's slower economy could turn into our opportunity to get re-urbanization right. Regional housing and health institutions, along with the city of Spokane, just won an Invest Health grant to create an affordable housing plan. Let's demand that our local leaders work toward meeting basic housing needs before our affordability bubble bursts forever. ♦
Mariah McKay is a fourth-generation daughter of Spokane and a community organizer campaigning for racial, social and economic justice. She currently serves as a public health advocate.