Olympia faces more pressure to solve affordable housing problem

Activists and social service providers continue to pressure Olympia leaders to reduce homelessness and increase the amount of affordable housing.

In May, the city is expected to hire Elway Research to survey residents online and via telephone about their preference for a property tax that could help build 250 new units of affordable housing. The housing proposal stems from a campaign by the nonprofit advocacy group Home Fund.

A committee of three Olympia City Council members also has been exploring options for ways to address this issue. It’s up to the council to ask voters for the housing levy, and the city’s deadline is July 25 to put such a measure on the November election ballot.

Some people may bristle at the thought of another tax. But advocates say a public investment in housing and social services could save taxpayer dollars by keeping chronically homeless people off the streets — and out of jails and emergency rooms.

“We have a small cluster of people with a radically high public cost,” said Phil Owen, program director for SideWalk, which connects the local homeless population with housing, case management and rental assistance. “But the vast majority (of homeless residents) are relatively low-need and can be served cheaply.”

Owen, who is part of the Home Fund group, said there are 499 cases in the Olympia area that score highest on the vulnerability index, an assessment tool that determines a client’s mental and physical health risks.

Treatment for mental health issues and substance abuse is most successful when these clients have a safe place to live, he said. The levy is necessary because of the rising cost of housing in Thurston County, coupled with the opioid epidemic and federal cuts in mental health care funding.


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