Most Thurston County residents will soon have to start paying a new sales tax to support low-income housing, following a 2-1 vote by the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday.
The board approved a 0.1% sales tax increase to create a countywide home fund. The new ordinance includes a tax credit for the cities of Olympia and Tenino, both of which already have similar taxes, effectively excluding them.
With the sales tax, the county expects to generate about $4.5 million to $5 million in revenue per year. The funding will be combined with about $2.3 million in revenue the city of Olympia already generates each year with its own home fund tax.
Funds will be administered by the county commission, but the Regional Housing Council, an advisory committee, will make funding recommendations.
In a news release, Commission Chair Carolina Mejia said she is excited to use the funds to address a “real need” in Thurston County.
“This tax is going to help a lot of the most vulnerable people in our community, including many children, and I know the county and the (Regional Housing Council) are ready to get moving on projects to address the growing need,” Mejia said.
The funds will support the creation of affordable housing for county residents with income that is at or below 60% of the county median income, according to the ordinance.
Under state law, at least 60% of a home fund must be used to build or purchase affordable housing and mental and behavioral health-related facilities. This includes the cost of acquiring land for these purposes and operations and maintenance costs.
Olympia residents approved a citywide home fund tax in 2018. Since then, housing advocates and city officials have called for a county-wide home fund to address the regional issues of homelessness and affordable housing.
The Regional Housing Council endorsed a countywide levy in a 3-0 vote on July 28, prompting the board of county commissioners to consider the tax.
The council’s recommendation came a year after the passage of House Bill 1590, which allowed city councils and county commissions to create a housing levy without voter approval.
Several dozens of community members shared their support for the county-wide tax in advance of or during a Nov. 23 public hearing.
On Jan. 11, the city of Tenino approved its own home fund tax through a city council vote.
With its final vote on Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners ultimately decided to enact the levy via councilmanic action rather than pursuing a public vote.
Commissioner Gary Edwards voted against the levy, citing his dissatisfaction with the county’s response to homelessness and a desire to let the public decide the matter.
“I have heard from my constituents that they don’t think throwing money at the problem is going to be the solution,” Edwards said. “Any time we deny voters the right to vote on an issue, we continue to slip further away from democracy.”
Edwards then reiterated his desire to force those experiencing homelessness into mental health and drug addiction treatment.
“There is no requirement that we have accountability,” Edwards said. “There’s going to be continued deviant behavior on the part of many because of that.”
Commissioner Tye Menser called the vote one of the most significant of his time serving on the board. He likened the tax to an investment that will save the community money in the long run, particularly costs associated with law enforcement, jailing, hospitals and emergency services.
“My wife likes to say you got to spend money to save money,” Menser said. “I think that’s particularly true when you talk about permanent supportive housing.”
Menser said he supported the home fund tax because it would go a long way toward creating ongoing regional support for affordable housing and mental health treatment.
“What you’re getting for this is not just a discrete county program,” Menser said. “We have built a regional collaborative framework … in order to create efficient, high-impact projects with good oversight of the money being collected here.”
The county has been using American Rescue Plan funds for housing programs, but more funding will be needed to provide continued support, Menser and Mejia said.
Mejia reflected on the long path to creating the home fund.
“There were a lot of different opinions at first, but then we all came together and it’s really formidable,” Mejia said. “Looking at the other counties’ resolutions and looking at ours, I’m really proud of how we’ve been able to work with our partners in this because it really is a regional issue.”
A newly created Community Advisory Subcommittee to the Regional Housing Council will provide recommendations to its parent council, per the ordinance.
Additionally, the ordinance calls for the county to create an interlocal agreement with the city of Olympia to create a framework for combining its home fund with the countywide fund.
The ordinance will take effect five days after the county publishes a notice in The Olympian.