Several housing advocacy groups gather for revolutionary change amid Spokane’s housing crisis
Nazeerah Muhammad works tirelessly to pay the $1,025 rent on her one-bedroom apartment at Browne’s Addition.
She’s one of those Spokane renters who have little access to financial safety nets like bank loans or generational wealth. The American Community Survey found that 58% of Spokane renters are black. Muhammad, a black woman, has been living here since 2016.
Muhammad tried to make it work by working at Shari’s on Division as a waiter, working in call centers a couple of times and working at Kaiser Permanente Health Insurance. She used up her savings and it still wasn’t enough.
In March, however, Muhammad found help: the Carl Maxey Center’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The program is the first of its kind in Spokane and focuses on black residents, a racial group that often experiences discrimination when looking for housing.
“This has literally freed me to find a job but still be able to pay my bills through this support,” Muhammad said. “And I can also focus on the things that I’ve kind of neglected so I can have a future. I cry sometimes because it’s such a relief.”
According to the Washington State Tenants Union, housing availability in Spokane is a dangerously low 0.5%, and the cost of home ownership has risen nearly 90% over the past four years.
The Maxey Center’s Rental Assistance Program is just one of many solutions offered to alleviate the housing crisis. Spokane reflects national trends of insufficient housing stock, strained landlord-tenant relationships, and uncertainty about Gen Z’s chances of becoming homeowners. The chances of owning a home are dwindling as the Gen Zers try to balance heavy financial commitments like student loan payments and inflation, which has been at its highest since the 1980s.
Housing associations, along with the Spokane City Council, have been discussing the dangers of Spokane’s housing shortage. Marley Hochendoner, executive director of the Northwest Housing Alliance, cites racial discrimination as a major concern of the housing crisis.
“They bear the brunt of much of the injustice and reduced access to housing,” Hochendoner said. “These are BIPOC people, people with disabilities, people on low fixed incomes, so there’s a lot of overlap. If we have something that affects everyone, not enough housing, the people who often bear the greatest brunt are people who have experienced racism and discrimination throughout history and in their lives, and who have so many other obstacles in their way .”
Housing discrimination against people of color has deep roots in the United States. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed housing discrimination but did not remove the barriers to fair housing for those affected by redlining, racial bargaining, steerage, or other discriminatory practices, reducing future opportunities for Black and Hispanic homeowners.
“Even (our) zoning codes are something that perpetuates discrimination or segregation by not allowing certain buildings to be built now,” Hochendoner said. “The city intends to make some changes to the housing laws to allow for additional housing units and more maisonettes, but that’s an example of policies that we can really look at and look at for racial injustice and how (policies) perpetuate past discrimination as a result more restrictive.” Agreements, segregation and estate agent control.”
The Northwest Housing Alliance participated in the City of Spokane’s 2019 Impediments to Fair Housing study to understand the racial and economic aspects of the housing crisis.
“In Spokane, for example, the homeownership rate is about 63 percent for whites and 40 percent for BIPOC communities,” Hochendoner said, adding that the rising rents would tend to weigh on people of color, who are primarily renters.
A 210-page housing action plan approved by the City Council last year assessed the issues that have contributed to Spokane’s housing shortage. City Council President Breean Beggs and City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear led the project. The final plan was approved in November with the aim of creating new forms of housing, an urgent need.
“I’m sure a lot of people say, ‘You passed that in July, why wasn’t it done by the end of the year?’ ‘ Begs said. “If you make any significant changes to the land use and development rules in the comprehensive plan, we will have to go through a very involved public process.”
During virtual seminars, the city council met with organizations like the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance, the Tenants Union of Washington, and local leaders from organizations like the NAACP.
At the meetings, short- and long-term goals for solving housing problems were clarified, such as: B. Universal background checks to reduce the cost of renting applications and the removal of barriers to building duplexes and other diverse housing types in single-family areas.
In addition to efforts to build fair housing, organizations are trying to help tenants with problems. Duaa-Rahemaah Williams is a statewide organizer for the Resident Action Project (RAP), a network that teaches leadership, storytelling, advocacy and other tactics to change state policy to those directly affected by housing and homelessness challenges.
Williams aims to create change that centers the experiences of those affected by home insecurity. The overarching goal, she said, is enforcement of policies and laws. However, because RAP is a statewide organization, community housing advocacy can vary across the state.
Williams also works with local organizations like the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance.
“We’re giving them the skills and the education to become community leaders,” Williams said. “So it’s all about making change through storytelling, serving on committees, telling our stories, organizing and running civic engagement. Our whole thing is … making changes at a national level.”
The Resident Action Project plans to host a two-day housing summit in June that will focus on housing injustices faced by BIPOC tenants, people with disabilities, refugees and the LGBTQ+ community.
“Those who are part of the community know their stories better than you do,” Williams said. “They have the experience because they lived it.”
Through her work, Williams uncovered overwhelming racial differences in Spokane’s housing crisis.
“The people who have housing injustices are Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, people who are refugees, people whose second language is English,” Williams said. “I make sure that those who are part of RAP, who receive information and training in different things, are part of these communities.”
Michelle Pappas is one of the RAP reps Williams coached with personal testimony. Pappas, who identifies as multiracial and Mexican, has struggled with housing problems since childhood.
With the help of RAP and donations, Pappas secured her first home. Pappas advocates for housing justice, including the decriminalization of people affected by homelessness. Now, in her role as program manager for Future Wise, a Spokane nonprofit dedicated to “healthy, just, and empowered communities,” Pappas encourages BIPOC youth to organize testimonies about their housing experiences.
“Storytelling in community organization is not just about teaching people how to tell their stories, but also about reminding them that their lived experience is so important and valid,” Pappas said. “I often hear, ‘I’m only 17 and I have no experience.’ They have 17 years of lived experience, which is longer than I am in my job.”
To recognize April as Fair Housing Month, the Spokane YWCA hosted a panel discussion on racial justice and housing with Terri Anderson, Executive Secretary of Spokane’s Tenants Union Chapter, and Stephanie Courtney, Founder of the Learning Project.
Anderson discussed the importance of securing housing in order to participate in democratic practices like absentee voting and access other important resources. She echoed Hochendoner’s views on the racial disparities that are fueling the crisis.
“The Spokane Regional Health District did a health survey where they looked at quarter-by-quarter life expectancy,” Anderson said. “You can literally see a 20-year difference in lifespan between the neighborhoods that only had white covenants and the neighborhoods that had red lines, so we’re feeling it in our lives.”
One of the first physical housing solutions is the Haystack Heights co-housing project. Located in the South Perry area,
“Our co-housing is an intergenerational project,” said project co-founder Mariah McKay. “We believe we have the best of both worlds here at Haystack where there is a 7 minute bike ride to downtown Spokane and an urban green space that we can preserve.”
On nearly three acres of land, Haystack Heights’ cluster model includes five floors with apartments on three flights of stairs. The design is based on the dense living style, in contrast to the spacious floor plans of single-family houses. Among the 39 families residing in the housing units, nine included school-age children. The majority of members are over 60 years old.
During the May 27 opening ceremony, Council President Breean Beggs discussed how Haystack Heights is addressing the Housing Action Plan’s priority of “increasing housing supply, options and affordability for all incomes.”
“In this new world of resource scarcity, climate change, and income inequality … co-housing is a real solution because more people are living together with fewer resources spent but have a high quality of life,” Beggs said. “At this moment, even though there is a terrible housing crisis in the community, there is an urgent need to find solutions out of the crisis.”
According to Shaping Spokane, the city’s 2017 update to the city’s comprehensive plan, Spokane’s population is projected to increase to 234,306 people by 2037. More than 7,000 affordable housing units need to be added to the area’s residential landscape.
While housing advocacy groups are promoting solutions through rent relief funds, tenant associations, and citywide discussions, many solutions are temporary.
Hochendoner hopes the city will try to implement more of the solutions found during the Housing Action Plan process.
“We need to … prioritize access to housing programs for people who have experienced discrimination,” Hochendoner said. “That’s one of the things I saw in the city’s implementation plan. Housing programs should be a priority for current or former residents of formerly demarcated areas.”