Yesterday I was watching my potatoes grow. I planted them last weekend and already some are up and rarin’ to go. I know I’ve got my seasons all wrong: potatoes should be planted in early spring when the soil temps reach about 45 degrees, so I missed that window. Well, better late than never. I’m just grateful I have a place to plant them; a fence to keep the critters out; and water. In short, I have a place to live. A lot of folks don’t.
“Fewer and fewer families can afford a roof over their heads. This is among the most urgent and pressing issues facing America today, and acknowledging the breadth and depth of the problem changes the way we look at poverty. We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty” (from Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” 2017). This is how Kelly Rupp, Ocean Park resident and member of the Pacific County Planning Commission, began his slide show for a recent Joint Pacific County Housing Authority (JPHA) community workshop.
We’ve known that housing is a growing problem in our country and our county. When even folks who have a job offer can’t find a local place to live in order to take advantage of that offer, you know you have a problem. Here’s another shocker (from HUD statistics): “A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.”
Our JPHA — made up of representatives from Long Beach, Ilwaco, South Bend and Raymond — is mandated to “investigate into living, dwelling and housing conditions and into the means and methods of improving such conditions.” For the past couple months, the JPHA has been holding public meetings to disseminate information and discuss factors that contribute to homelessness in our region, as well as to solicit solutions.
The housing crisis hits low-income, disabled and senior folks the hardest all over the nation. On every possible data point, our county numbers are much worse than either the state or national averages. The relative numbers of “housing-impaired” individuals in our county are scary. The median age in Washington state and the nation as a whole is 38 years old. The media age in Long Beach is 53. Likewise, the median income in Washington state is $62,800; while the median income in Pacific County is $38,000; and a shocking $26,800 in Long Beach.
Veterans are hard hit by homelessness. The average percentage of veterans per total population in the U.S. is six percent. In Long Beach the figure is 18 percent, and on the north end of the Peninsula here’s another shocker — 29 percent of our citizens are vets. Disabled citizens make up 10 percent of our national population but not in Pacific County. Disabled individuals here are 27 percent of our population. And, here’s a double whammy: 44 percent of Pacific County’s citizens over 64 are disabled.
Every demographic related to a housing crisis in our county is dramatic and several times over the national averages. According to data on actual structures, we have a total of 15,977 housing units in our county. Of those nearly half — 6,700 — are unoccupied and assumed to be second homes or vacations homes. Many of these second homes sit empty or are used as short-term rentals. and, therefore, are not available for rental housing.
There are four subsidized-housing complexes in our area — Westwind Manor, Willapa Independent Living, Pacific Sands in Long Beach and Surf Pines in Ilwaco — for a total of just under 100 units; but all of these have long waiting lists. Clearly more low-income housing units are a critical need in Pacific County.
The Peninsula is not alone is suffering a housing crisis. Our neighboring county to the north has similar issues. In Grays Harbor County, Aberdeen is in the midst of a downtown revitalization project, but many citizens are adamant that this cannot happen without housing for the homeless as part of the picture. A recent Aberdeen homeless project called “Harbor Rising” even caught the attention of the Most Reverend Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church. (He is the bishop who gave the remarkable sermon at Prince Harry and Meghan Markles’ recent wedding.) Amazingly, the bishop found out about the Aberdeen homeless demonstration and included it in his Pacific Northwest tour two weekends ago.
Bishop Curry visit with the Poor People’s Campaign (recently featured on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now) was part of an event conducted by event organizers that put an emphasis on housing. The organizers asked that city council members of Aberdeen prioritize housing in their revitalization plans. Harbor Rising began the tour in the parking lot adjacent to Jay’s Fruit Stand on East Heron and made their stand in front of City Hall.
In Aberdeen, one in 16 — approximately 1,000 people — are homeless. For every 100 extremely low-income families in Grays Harbor, there are just 17 affordable housing units available. For the 1,775 extremely low-income households in the county, there are only 615 affordable units available; and for the 1,715 very low-income households, only 605 affordable units are available (American Community Survey Data 2016). Though not as dramatic as Pacific County, in Aberdeen 862 units or 11.7 percent of their available housing units are vacant — still a problem but well under our dismal 50 percent.
Hannah Jones, Montesano organic farmer and one of the organizers of the Aberdeen event, said, “Aberdeen officials are trying to criminalize homelessness. There is an ordinance that criminalizes sitting or lying down on downtown sidewalk that just passed. So what we’re seeing is instead of developing long term solutions, they’re just trying to make the problem go away. The people in our area built this place. They gave their lives to the timber and fishing industries. They deserve to be taken care of now.”
“We need to show the city council that we are actually the people who make up this city. We are the life blood of this place — it’s not just business interests.”
Hannah’s words could be the rallying cry for everyone concerned about poverty and homelessness. Are we a nation, a state, a county that helps one another? Are we people who take care of our citizens, even those who are less lucky or advantaged than the most privileged of us? I hope the answer is yes. We all deserve to be able to plant potatoes.
For more information about the Joint Pacific County Housing Authority or to find out how you can help, contact Chris Pegg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-423-0140, ext. 15, or Kelly Rupp at email@example.com or 360-665-0115.
Stay tuned next week for another look at housing: notes from an interview with Pacific County Assessor, Bruce Walker, about recent and rising real estate assessments.