Looking at the numbers on homelessness in Thurston County can be disillusioning. They don't look good. The most recent Point-in-Time count located 1,145 people experiencing homelessness in the county — and that number has increased in recent years, as rents continue to rise and packed shelters scramble to find more space.
There's also the glaring need: Thurston and Mason counties combined have only 139 permanent supportive housing units, according to a 2018 study of behavioral health facilities by the state Office of Financial Management (OFM). That's the smallest number of units for any of the 10 regions the OFM studied, and by far the least per capita.
As homeless camps become more common and visible, it may seem like nothing is being done. But multiple housing projects for homeless and low-income people under construction or in the pipeline will double the number of permanent supportive housing units in Olympia over the next several years.
"It's just so amazing to see it actually come to life," said Meg Martin, executive director of Interfaith Works, whose 2828 Martin Way project is set to finish construction in December. The building will include 65 units of permanent supportive housing and a 60-bed emergency shelter on the ground floor.
Two other projects are set to break ground in 2022: The Family Support Center's permanent supportive housing project for homeless families in west Olympia, which will house 62 families, and Habitat for Humanity of the South Sound's Tumwater Townhomes development, which will create 28 owner-occupied townhome duplexes for low-income families.
The Olympian talked with each organization about how their projects came about, and what effect they will have on homelessness in Thurston County.
Although Interfaith Works has been active in the community since the 1970s, it was in 2014 that they opened the city's first low-barrier shelter at First Christian Church.
In 2018, the city of Olympia purchased the land at 2828 Martin Way and sold to the Low-income Housing Institute (LIHI), a Seattle-based nonprofit developer responsible for Billy Frank Jr. Place and Plum Street Tiny Home Village. LIHI is working in partnership with Interfaith Works on the Martin Way project.
The $20.7 million building is funded mostly with federal Low-income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC); the Washington state Housing Trust Fund, Thurston County, and the city of Olympia also contributed funds.
Martin said that while most of local shelters are buildings that have been repurposed from other uses such as churches or commercial buildings, this will be the first one designed specifically to serve the needs of people who've experienced homelessness.
"Every single design decision that we made on this building was with all the years of experience, even before our time, experience and knowledge of what a space needs to be like to better support people's health and well-being," Martin said.
The building will serve people on the "very low to extremely low" end of the income spectrum, who will be selected through the county's Coordinated Entry system, which sorts people based on their level of vulnerability. That could mean someone with zero income, or as high as 50% of Area Median Income.
About half of the units will be further subsidized by project-based vouchers from the Housing Authority of Thurston County, which are a type of Section 8 voucher that's attached to a specific building. For those without a voucher, rents will range from $376-$669, depending on the tenant's income.
For an organization that now operates out of church basements, it's a huge scaling up.
Last year, Interfaith Works also purchased property down the road at 3444 Martin Way, where they plan to demolish the former fabric store there and erect a modular 'Sprung' structure that will serve as a temporary shelter before transitioning to a day center when 2828 Martin Way opens.
"As of now, we very strongly, and I think (last) weekend couldn't have been more proof, we very much need a day center in our community," Martin said. "And I don't see that need changing because I don't see another provider that's willing to fill that role."
Family Support Center
"We didn't intend to be housing developers," said Trish Gregory, executive director of Family Support Center of the South Sound (FSC).
In November 2019, the organization purchased a west Olympia property using a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant, and is developing it in partnership with Bellwether Housing, a Seattle-based nonprofit. The project's first phase, which is expected to start construction in early 2022, will have 62 units for families, the majority of whom are unsheltered or have experienced domestic violence.
When FSC first opened its Pear Blossom Place shelter in 2014, the average length of stay for families was about one month, with a three-month maximum; that rule was abandoned after it became clear how difficult it was for many families to find permanent housing.
"We didn't want to exit families to the street," Gregory said. "(Now) we just look to get families moved to housing as quickly as possible, and sometimes as quickly as possible is well over a year."
Family Support Center currently keeps a master list of 150 homeless families with children sourced through coordinated entry. Some are lucky enough to make it off the famously long waiting list for rental vouchers, but can't find a landlord who will rent to them — especially if they've been evicted before, owe rent to a former landlord, or have a criminal history.
Operating their owns apartments will allow Gregory's staff to be more flexible about who they help — they can house those families with major barriers like criminal history that get shut out of the private market.
"When we open up this new facility, we'll be able to cut that list in half," Gregory said.
The vast majority of the funding for the $20 million project comes from federal Low-income Housing Tax Credits, with $4 million from the state housing trust fund and $1.4 million from Olympia's Home Fund.
It will serve families making between zero to 50% of area median income. That means that a two-person family that makes less than $35,000 per year would qualify, and would pay between $487-$878 per month, depending on their income. Those with a section 8 voucher would pay even less.
South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity
Since 1989, Habitat for Humanity of South Puget Sound has built eight housing developments in Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, and Yelm. They are nearing completion of Deyoe Vista, 33 cottages in Lacey. Next year, they're breaking ground on projects in Yelm and Tumwater, the latter of which will build 14 duplex townhouses at 73rd Street and Henderson Boulevard, near Olympia Regional Airport.
Over the past few decades, the prospect of homeownership has grown increasingly distant for working and even middle-class households. Nonprofit models that take land of out the speculative market, such as Habitat and Community Land Trusts, can help counter that, said CEO Carly Colgan.
Colgan often hears from people who get approved for a mortgage, but only up to $150,000, which is not enough to buy a home in Thurston County.
It costs Habitat about $250,000 to build a house. The $100,000 difference is treated as what Colgan calls a "silent mortgage," which is forgiven unless the family leaves before the 30-year mortgage period is over. Each year, they accrue equity and when they decide to sell, it must be to another household making less than 80% AMI. Those deed restrictions are how the homes are kept permanently affordable.
Most of the families Habitat works with make about 45% of Area Median Income, or less than $35,000 per year in Thurston County. They're all first-time homeowners. Many have poor credit, or no credit at all; some don't even have bank accounts. But they do need to be willing to put in 500 hours of "sweat equity" during construction.
"Usually someone who builds their home takes more pride in ownership and has more of an understanding of what it means to be a homeowner," Colgan said.
Over the course of the 10 or so months of building, families also work with a financial coach to develop credit so they can apply for a mortgage.
Set to begin in late spring 2022, the Tumwater townhomes were designed by local firm the Artisans Group, which recently created prefabricated plans for Accessory Dwellings Units that are being made available for free to interested homeowners.
For Habitat for Humanity, which is the only builder of affordable owner-occupied homes in the county, the Tumwater project will be their first venture into multi-family housing.
Previously, they'd only done single family homes or cottages, which are detached homes clustered around shared space without a requirement to provide driveways. The change is a recognition of the scarcity of remaining buildable land and skyrocketing prices.
"There needs to be a diversity of options of what affordable homeownership looks like," Colgan said.