Real estate document fees crucial, effective in reducing homelessness

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 9, 2014 

In a recent op-ed piece, Washington Association of Realtors' President George McGilliard explained his organization's stance on our community's most important funding source in the fight to end homelessness.

The revenue in question - document recording fees - amounts to the largest source of funding for homeless programs here and across the state. The revenue supports services that prevent and reduce homelessness, like emergency shelters, rent assistance and supportive homes for people who are disabled. Locally, these funds are integrated into a system that has not only reduced homelessness, but also reduced crime. In the last five years, Whatcom County has seen a 65 percent reduction in homelessness among military veterans. Also, a 2011 study showed the document recording fee-funded City Gate Reentry Housing Program directly reduced crime in our community.

Despite success stories like these in Whatcom County and all over the state, Washington Realtors and the for-profit landlord lobby led the charge during the 2014 legislative session to significantly weaken and almost kill a bipartisan bill that would have indefinitely extended document recording fees.

Mr. McGilliard points to "public testimony questioning whether the funds were being used cost-effectively to provide shelter for the homeless." Indeed, members of his lobby did provide this testimony. They also complained that the Department of Commerce had failed to provide information about how the funds were being used. This testimony was simply false. Commerce staff provided legislators with detailed evidence of fund expenditures and impacts: homelessness reduced 29 percent statewide despite the negative impacts of the Great Recession.

I also join with other housing advocates in disagreeing with Mr. McGilliard's assertion that this funding source is unreliable or unfair. Yes, the revenue stream fluctuates with business cycles. In fact, most public revenue streams fluctuate based on the economy. Despite this economic reality, these funds have been absolutely crucial and effective in preventing and reducing homelessness even during the largest business cycle fluctuation in generations. I challenge Mr. McGilliard to suggest a specific, acceptable revenue source that is stable or countercyclical.

The Realtors' lobbyists asserted and Mr. McGilliard also implied that these fees present a barrier to homeownership. I'll let the reader decide if a homebuyer's document recording fee of one dollar per year on a 30-year mortgage creates such a barrier.

When new homeowners pay a modest fee, it helps to ensure that others in their community will also have a safe place to call home. Together with other federal sources of funding to which all Americans contribute, the public support for homelessness programs is already broad-based. Importantly, large amounts of these other funds are supporting landlords and property managers, a part of Mr. McGilliard's constituency. This fact was ignored by another opponent of document recording fees, the for-profit landlord lobby that argued for 45 percent of the funds going into their members' pockets. Unfortunately, this provision made it into the final compromise bill.

Homelessness is not a simple problem that needs a quick fix. We need to develop long-term, coordinated infrastructure and robust and resilient systems to quickly treat each case of homelessness as the emergency that it is. Counties across the state are using these recording fees to develop solutions that also save taxpayers money. For example, in partnership with Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement, the funding is used to integrate housing support with primary care services for people who had been living on the streets of Bellingham and who without this support were racking up huge costs in ambulance transports, emergency room use and avoidable hospital admissions.

I am pleased to say that our own local Whatcom County Association of Realtors understands the complexity of homelessness and the shortage of affordable homes. We don't always agree, but we can come together to sincerely develop solutions.

We call on the statewide real estate lobby to come to the table as honest and true partners in the movement to end homelessness or to at least stop road-blocking legislation to protect our state's main source of funding for the programs that prevent and reduce homelessness in every community across the state.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Greg Winter is chair of the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness.

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