Efforts against homelessness need stable funding

Everyone wants to help address the plight of homelessness, especially the real estate industry. So let’s set the record straight: Washington Realtors did not oppose extending the $40 document recording fee for local homeless housing and assistance during the 2014 legislative session.

We simply wanted to make sure the program works well and has the right funding source. Senate Bill 5875 achieved a balanced result by ensuring that local homeless programs are funded through 2019, providing a process to ensure that funds are being used effectively.

Over the past seven years, this temporary fee on recorded real estate documents like deeds, mortgages and easements has increased 400 percent. During the 2014 legislative session, members of the Legislature proposed that this fee originally promoted by homeless housing advocates as a temporary fix be made permanent.

We agree that homelessness is a challenge that we should work to eradicate, but the real question is how do we fund these programs in a manner that is fair and predictable? Realtors asked that the $40 fee have a five-year sunset.

Ever since the Great Recession, even minor tax or fee bills passed by the Legislature typically include an expiration date. This allows the Legislature to re-evaluate how the funds are being used and consider program changes as needed.

This is no small program: The fee will raise more than $50 million per year. During this past legislative session, there was considerable public testimony questioning whether the funds were being used cost-effectively to provide shelter for the homeless in our communities. Even when scarce state or local revenues are being used for a good cause, it doesn’t mean the use of funds should avoid accountability.

In addition to extending funding, SB 5875 provides for a full review of whether these funds are being properly used. Real estate document recording fees may not be a proper funding source because they are so unpredictable.

When real estate booms, as it did between 2003 and 2007, the number of recorded real estate documents rise. But when real estate crashes, as it did in 2008 document recordings – and the revenue they generate – can decrease greatly.

Ironically, using document recording fees to fund homeless programs relies on a funding source that generates the least revenue when the economy is at its worst – when demands for local housing assistance are at their greatest.

Realtors have long contributed to the fight against homelessness in many ways.

 • In the late 1980s, real estate licensees voluntarily donated interest earned on Real Estate Trust Accounts to homeless programs, money that has been flowing to those programs now for more than 20 years.

 • Realtors work as volunteers and donors with local homeless programs, including Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army and other groups.

 • The Washington Association of Realtors has been one of the state’s leading supporters of the Housing Trust Fund, Housing Finance Commission, Affordable Housing Advisory Board, and various state and local programs that support housing for all citizens.

Preventing homelessness is something that our society as a whole has a moral obligation to support. Funding support for the homeless shouldn’t be driven by a family’s once-in-a-decade decision to buy a house. We believe the state should consider other funding sources that are more broad-based so that all citizens are a part of the solution and so that local homeless programs have the funding stability they need.

George McGilliard, a Tacoma real estate broker, is the president of Washington Realtors.