Bill must be revived to keep funding housing for Whatcom's homeless

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 5, 2014 

A state bill to maintain a funding source for housing homeless people died last week in a Senate committee. If it can't be resurrected, a program that puts homeless people in apartments in Whatcom County will be cut drastically, said social service officials.

The money comes from a $40 recording fee on certain real estate transactions. If no action is taken, the fee will drop to $30 in mid-2015 and to $10 in mid-2017.

Both cuts, combined, would amount to $545,000 lost annually in Whatcom County, according to an estimate from Gail de Hoog, the county Health Department's housing specialist.

Officials estimate the program, which helps homeless people pay rent and supports them with case management, would be cut by 60 percent.

"That would gut our system," de Hoog said.

House Bill 2368 would have made the recording fee permanent. In a late compromise between Democrats and Republicans, a bill that appeared ready to clear the Republican-controlled Senate would have extended the $40 fee to 2020.

The bill passed the House on Feb. 13 by a 62 to 36 vote, with seven Republicans voting yes.

But the bill never got out of the Senate Financial Institutions, Housing and Insurance Committee. A deadline to get House bills out of Senate committees passed last week.

That doesn't mean the bill is truly dead, said Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, a co-sponsor of the bill.

"Nothing is dead until (end of session) is what I have come to learn in the Legislature," she said.

The session is scheduled to end March 13.

"I would love to see it revived in any form," Lytton said. "That was a strong message that I got from lots of folks in Bellingham, that we ... keep helping a population that needs help."

Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, who voted against the bill in the House, said past fee increases, to $30 and then $40, were supposed to be temporary all along.

Buys also said the fee had not met its goal of reducing homelessness by 50 percent. Since the program began less than 10 years ago, homelessness has dropped 29 percent statewide.

In Whatcom County, homelessness has been reduced by 34 percent since 2008, de Hoog said.

"We're only going to reach our goal with a proper amount of funding," de Hoog said. "People recognize the effectiveness of this kind of funding. Most people do, anyway."

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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