Housing

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For the first time, the Cowlitz County Community Report Card is focusing on housing as one of the social determinants of health. Earlier report cards briefly addressed homelessness as an issue of social cohesion, but finding safe, environmentally healthy, and affordable housing is essential to the health of the family. Simply being poor or living on a fixed income limits housing choices for families and single adults, and the choices that are available are often less than desirable. Agencies such as the Longview, Kelso and Kalama housing authorities and Lower Columbia CAP provide public housing and rental assistance in addition to opportunities for homeownership. Despite these programs, there is typically a wait of several years before a family can advance on the waiting list for receiving rental assistance and help make housing costs affordable to them.

In addition to the 116 housing units offered by the Kelso and Kalama housing authorities to families and elderly/disabled persons, the three local housing authorities provide approximately 1,300 Housing Choice Voucher programs (Section 8)  within Cowlitz County. Approximately 375 of these vouchers are earmarked for disabled households. There are approximately 180 housing units throughout Cowlitz County run by a variety of public and private agencies which are designated for households who have a family member with a disability. Both Longview and Kelso housing authorities and Lower Columbia CAP have set aside additional housing resources to serve homeless households, homeless veterans, elderly or disabled persons, survivors of domestic violence and parents in recovery. There are a number of private and public organizations offering approximately 216 housing units for seniors. Some of these beds overlap; for example, there are over 500 beds that serve people who are either elderly or disabled. These numbers do not include assisted living units, memory care facilities, or nursing/rehabilitation units. In addition, there are approximately 220 beds available for adults and families in recovery from addiction, and around 170 beds offered by a variety of community agencies for people with a developmental disability or mental illness. Kelso and Woodland offer 75 units of affordable housing for farmworkers. Despite these resources, many in our county struggle to stay housed.

Both public agencies and private lenders suggest that a family should spend no more than 30% of their income on gross rent. Over one-third (35.2%) of all households in Cowlitz County are cost-burdened (paying over 30% of income) or severely cost-burdened (paying more than 50% of income for housing.) More than half (52.5%) of renters are paying over 30% of their incomes for gross rent and one-fourth of all renters (25.7%) are paying more than 50% of income toward housing. Since the year 2000, the disparity in income and gross rent greater than 30% locally has risen from 40% to 61.4%, meaning that increases in rent have outpaced increases in wages. This disparity is higher in Cowlitz County than both the national and state averages.

Just over 8,000 households (owners and renters) in the Longview-Kelso area are paying more than 30% of their income for housing, representing about 40% of urban area households. Almost half of them—3,685 households—are severely cost-burdened, paying more than half their income for housing. This presents a high risk for becoming homeless, as often it only takes one major life event—such as an illness or breakdown of a vehicle needed to get to work—to lose the ability to pay rent. Two-thirds of the severely cost-burdened households are tenants; one-third are homeowners—typically older and living on a small fixed income.

According to the 2015 Out of Reach Report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, our county continues to have rents comparably lower than the average for Washington State. With rents at $737 per month for a 2-bedroom unit, we are somewhat less expensive than many other areas of the state. When considering the circumstances of disabled persons, senior citizens and others on fixed incomes, financial resources do not go very far. Social Security Insurance (SSI) disability recipients have a monthly income of $721, and by the standard of 30% allowable for rent, can only afford $216 a month. That is far too little for the most basic housing unit.

One of the more difficult issues in recent times has been addressing homelessness within the County. The January 2015 Project Homeless Connect event identified 126 homeless individuals in the County. The total number of homeless persons in the 2014 count was 222. Housing advocates estimate that there are likely twice as many people who are doubled up with friends and family as those who are literally homeless.  The county is in its final year of a 10 year plan to reduce homelessness. Between 2006 and 2014 homelessness dropped 52% across the county using a targeted approach outlined in the 10 year plan, which included establishing programs which run off of the “housing first” approach. A higher number of homeless are expected in 2015 due to a historic pattern that dips and rises before moving further downward, in alternating years. A higher count is also expected due to the provision of services to those with the most challenging needs. Historically once these services were put into place, many homeless families and individuals came forward requesting assistance. Low-barrier services are offered to reach those who cannot participate in traditional homeless programs, which typically enact eligibility criteria that screen out many individuals and families who have intense needs and present more challenging barriers to resolving their homeless situation.

The Cowlitz Housing First Coalition promotes the “housing first” approach, which has been documented as an evidence-based best practice across the country over the past 20 years. Housing First is based on the premise that people thrive when they have a permanent home with temporary supportive services to assist with housing stability. The “housing readiness” approach is also in use in several local programs, which has the focus on resolving all household problems before “graduating” to permanent housing. Community controversy has accompanied the opening of a new barrier-free facility operated by Love Overwhelming, which offers emergency shelter and day services to families and individuals who may have unresolved issues with drugs and alcohol use, mental illness or the criminal justice system. Regardless of which operating philosophy the homeless service providers in Cowlitz County subscribe to, most have seen a significant increase in the past few years in the proportion of people in homeless services with significant mental health needs. This speaks to the need for expanding access to mental health services—which is currently very limited, but should soon improve—and the need for permanent supportive housing for those whose disabilities are severe and long-term. For these people, support is just as critical as having affordable housing.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition conducts research in all U.S. counties to determine the local “housing wage,” which is the wage needed by a full-time worker in order to afford a two bedroom rental unit at fair market rent. The housing wage for Cowlitz County in 2014 was $13.13 while the housing wage for the state of Washington was $18.65 an hour. New data looks at the non-metropolitan rate that excludes King County and other metro areas, and yields a rate of $14.15 an hour. While this rate is closer to the Cowlitz County rate, it still remains that the County has more affordable housing than many. Even so, a person who is earning minimum wage would need to work 56 hours a week to be able to afford a two-bedroom rental unit in Cowlitz County without being considered cost-burdened. For all practical purposes, this means holding more than one job or having more than one wage earner in the household, which is growing less common with demographic shifts.

Housing also has a strong impact on the economy. While Cowlitz County is looking at the potential of billions of dollars of new industry coming to the area, there is not sufficient housing for new workers. In these cases the workers will likely live outside of the County and spend their paychecks elsewhere. The potential for housing subdivision development is restricted because there are no developers, though there are a few homebuilders who construct individual homes or small numbers at a time. Outside investment would be needed to develop housing to accommodate an influx of new residents. Mixed-use housing, an approach that combines ground floor retail with upper floor offices and apartments, could help create stable neighborhoods and access to needed services. Construction or retrofitting homes for all income levels is important for a stable housing market.

The Housing Affordability Index provided by Washington State University and the University of Washington shows that first time buyers in Cowlitz County have a very good chance of affording a home purchase, while would-be buyers in many counties across the State of Washington are unlikely to be able to afford prices in their county. Affordability has greatly increased from pre-recession market conditions. For current homeowners looking to move up or downsize their home, both the state and Cowlitz County Housing Affordability Index is strong and positive. When the index is 100 there is a balance between the family's ability to pay and the cost.  Higher indexes indicate housing is more affordable. The index for Washington State is 140 with Cowlitz County’s index even higher at 211.

Housing that is well maintained and supports health can also be hard to come by when financial resources are limited. Asthma occurs at a significant rate in our community, often because the individual is living in a home that has mold and other indoor pollutants. Tenants can feel trapped and unable to move to better housing because they lack financial resources for a deposit plus first and last month’s rent.

Exposure to mold and indoor air pollutants, such as tobacco, can raise the prevalence of asthma in children and adults. Currently there are no public programs for reducing toxic household environments. The percentage of Cowlitz County adults who in their lifetime were told they had asthma is 21%, which is not significantly different than the state rate. The most recent data from 2012 on hospitalizations shows that children younger than five years of age account for 1 in 5 of the hospitalizations for asthma in the state, with boys more likely to be hospitalized than girls. Of equal importance is the rate for adults age 65 and over, who are hospitalized at twice the rate of people ages 5-64. While the rate of hospitalizations across the state has decreased significantly from 104 per 100,000 to 76 per 100,000 females and from 77 per 100,000 to 52 per 100,000 males in 2012 due to modern medicine, asthma hospitalizations are rarer because outpatient and at-home treatments are available. Still, the national data has shown that hospitalizations are higher among some ethnic groups and for those with low income. This correlation would be true for Cowlitz County, as well.

Housing advocates also point to a lack of both studio apartments and apartments that can accommodate large families. The recent growth in housing demand seen in Clark and Thurston Counties since the end of the Great Recession has yet to be seen in Cowlitz County. An alternative approach might be to improve the housing stock to better serve multiple populations. This includes the concept of “aging in place” by creating a home that is appropriate for families with young children as well as senior citizens and can be an essential model for the community. Given the increasing aging and disabled population, minor home repairs and accessibility for senior citizens—especially those who are low income—is critical. The situation is improving because of organizations like Love Inc. which provides volunteers from local churches to build ramps, clean shrubbery for both safety and appearance, and help isolated elderly become reconnected with the community. This is an example of how the social determinants of health come together. Volunteering and working collaboratively build social cohesion, which in turn has an impact on housing by improving accessibility of the home to the owner, and promoting access to health care.

Call to Action - Personal: 
  • Be physically active 30 minutes a day, five days a week
  • Be a volunteer with a youth sporting activity
  • Volunteer in trails and park cleanup efforts
  • Advocate for expansion of trails and parks systems
Call to Action - Community: 
  • Support community recreation and sporting events
  • Donate to local youth sports
  • Support and participate with Bike to Work Week activities
  • Offer worksite wellness programs for employees
  • Encourage development of Safe Routes to School projects
  • Promote access to local parks and trails
  • Make public parks tobacco-free
  • Update and print community trails map
Call to Action - Policy Makers: 
  • Adopt Zoning which emphasizes walking and recreational opportunities
  • Support Great Streets concepts
  • Fund local parks
  • Fund development of new trails
  • Support polices where the build environment contributes to health

Success Stories

Emergency Support Shelter
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More than doubling the numbers of rooms and beds  it can offer, the Emergency Support Shelter’s new location in Longview allows more clients to receive assistance, plus gives them much needed privacy. This change is expected to keep domestic abuse victims at the shelter longer, reducing the chance they will return to abusive situations as they come to realize they are capable of caring for themselves. The new location allows each household to have its own private room and bathroom, where the previous location in Kelso often saw three or four households in each room. The communal type living situation created increased anxiety in many of the people it was trying to help. The new shelter allows advocates to focus their time more on supporting people as they plan for their future instead of dealing with conflicts caused by the lack of privacy. It also has safe and secure indoor and outdoor areas where children and their parents can go to play and unwind and a chapel/meditation area. It is designed to be  a refuge where residents are able to find rest, peace and support.

Project Homeless Connect
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Cowlitz Housing FIRST! Coalition had its third annual Project Homeless Connect event in January of this year, bringing together businesses, community members, service providers and local government to work towards the common goal of ending homelessness. The event provides individuals and families experiencing or at risk for becoming homeless, with access to a hot meal, clothing and services such as housing information, basic medical and dental exams, bike repair, assistance with identification services, haircuts, clothing, job search information and many others.