Imagine a nonprofit that provides jobs, raises property values in neighborhoods, lightens the burden of community social service programs and provides housing for people with extremely low incomes. It sounds too good to be true, but such a nonprofit exists in metropolitan Thurston County. It’s called Homes First.
The nonprofit has mostly flown under the community’s radar since its inception in April of 1990. But serve the growing number of people seeking decent, safe and affordable housing, Homes First is now reaching out for greater volunteer and financial support.
Almost 25 years ago, group of community activists noticed the scarcity of rental units available to people at or below 30 percent of the area median income. They formed a nonprofit to purchase and remodel rental housing -- with the help of Olympia Federal Savings and Loan -- and then make it available to extremely low-income people, people with disabilities and those in recovery from addiction.
Homes First started by purchasing two houses for $1 each from Thurston County, and moved them from what is now the site of the Olympia Fire Department. Today, the nonprofit manages $4 million in assets -- 71 rental units in 26 properties scattered throughout the urban area -- and serves 170 tenants.
Homes First is focused on housing, but it partners with social service agencies that provide physical and mental health services, and with the Oxford House program to support those in recovery from addiction.
It provides five houses for Oxford, 10 for people with developmental disabilities and 11 for extremely low-income families who have difficulty finding rental housing in the private market.
The need has never been greater in Thurston County. According to Thurston Thrives, more than 37,000 households in our county pay more than 50 percent of their monthly income on housing. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that about 47 percent of all renters in the county pay more than the recommended 30 percent on housing.
It’s no wonder that need is increasing. A person working full-time at minimum wage ($1,488 gross monthly income) in Thurston County must pay fair market rent of $770 for a one-bedroom unit and $943 for a two-bedroom.
Homes First receives about 500 calls annually from people seeking housing. It must turn most of them away because its tenants rarely move, often staying for life.
To help more people, Homes First hopes to acquire some of the estimated 1,100 foreclosed homes in the urban tri-city area by raising new capital funds and encouraging more local contractors to help with remodeling. The YouthBuild program at Community Youth Services/New Market Skills Center currently provides construction assistance and training for young people.
Homes First is hosting events on Aug. 12 and 14, and a first-ever fundraising breakfast on Sept. 18. It’s a program that deserves our support.